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A recent opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “Single Mothers Are Not the Problem” suggests that single motherhood has little effect on poverty in America. The author’s conclusion directly contradicts the research literature that describes single-parenthood as a major poverty contributor. How can both be true?
The answer depends on how you define the question. And the authors’ choice of question — how does single parenthood affect overall poverty? — by definition minimizes the implications of single parenthood on poverty and children by extension. This is because households with children (whether with married or unmarried parents) are a small share of the population, which is simply an artifact of age and fertility. Consider, for example, that only 57% of all families have children under 18 and less than half (47%) of all people are in a family with children under 18.
But David Brady and his colleagues focus on overall poverty. And by doing so they presuppose that people who advocate reducing single parenthood believe that it alone will solve poverty in America. That’s not the case. Poverty among children is what is important when considering the effects of family structure, and reducing single parenthood is one part of the solution.
Using US Census Bureau data for 2016, the child poverty rate was 17.6% (for related children in families, 18.0% for all children). If single-parent headed families had the same poverty rate as their married counterparts, the child poverty rate would have been 9.2% (Table POV3). Even using the more accurate supplemental poverty measure (which factors in most government benefits), child poverty would be 6 percentage points lower if children in single-parent families had the same poverty rate as their married counterparts.
Admittedly, this is a very simplistic way to look at the implications of single-parenthood on child poverty. Certain other parental characteristics that are correlated with single parenthood (such as limited education and unemployment) might still lead to child poverty even if all single parents were married. This is why it is important to control for these factors too.
Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution did exactly that in 2002 by simulating the effects of single parenthood on child poverty, controlling for age and education, and found that returning to marriage rates of the 1970s would reduce the percentage of children in poverty by 3.4 percentage points. In contrast, Brady and his colleagues suggest that “If we returned to the 1970 share of single motherhood, poverty would decline a tiny amount — from 16.1 percent to 15.98 [or 0.03 percentage points].”
The difference between studies stems from using different measures of poverty (in this case child vs. all individuals and the American vs. European measure), but it also stems from using different statistical methods. And in the absence of randomly assigning parents to marriage and non-marriage, statistical methods are the best we can do. But statistical studies require a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when such broad-based conclusions — such as reducing single motherhood won’t reduce poverty — are drawn from just one.
Realistically, it is impossible to ever know the contribution of single parenthood on poverty as precisely as these authors want. For this reason, the preponderance of evidence should be considered. And the preponderance suggests that children would be better off if more lived with married parents. Our public policies should reflect that reality.
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