‘Single Mothers Are Not the Problem” read the headline of a New York Times op-ed by sociologists David Brady, Ryan Finnegan, and Sabine Hübgen over the weekend. The problem here being poverty in America. Brady and his colleagues were taking issue with a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, the “Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty,” that stressed the value of putting marriage before childbearing in the fight against poverty here in the United States.
America should stop “obsessing” about single motherhood and poverty, according to Brady and colleagues, because “reducing single motherhood here would not substantially reduce poverty” for ordinary households and because, in a “majority of rich countries, single mothers are not more likely to be poor.” They went on to argue that unemployment, low education, and age are generally better predictors of poverty than is single motherhood. And they contended that generous welfare policies in many other wealthy democracies — such as Denmark — minimize the hazard of poverty for single mothers in these countries, and if replicated here in the U.S. would reduce poverty among single-mother families.
We have no argument with Brady and colleagues’ view that generous welfare policies in European social democracies dramatically reduce the risk of poverty among families headed by single mothers; they’re right about that. Of course, those countries also have far larger tax burdens. But the article, although well-done and instructive, ends up conveying the wrong impression about the actual links between single parenthood and poverty, especially for children. Here are four problems with the idea that reducing single motherhood has virtually nothing to do with the fight against poverty.
1. Overall poverty isn’t the same thing as child poverty.
The New York Times article focuses on the connection between single parenthood and poverty among individuals in all kinds of working-age households — including single-person households. Given the fact that only a minority of households in America have children, this focus diverts our gaze from what most concerns us when we’re looking at single mothers: child poverty. Nobody, after all, is claiming that reducing the number of single-mother households will lead to lower poverty rates among elderly or childless men and women. The concern among poverty scholars has always been that single motherhood leads to higher rates of child poverty. And there is no denying the close connection between single parenthood and child poverty in America.
To begin with, children living in single-mother families are about five times as likely to be poor, compared with children living in married, two-parent families. This is clear in a recent analysis of trends in the official poverty rate from our colleague Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution.
Moreover, research done by one of us, Isabel Sawhill, indicates that if the share of children in single-parent families had remained steady at the 1970 level, then the current child-poverty rate would be cut by about one-fifth, even after adjusting for the fact that single mother have different characteristics from married mothers. In other words, dramatic increases in single parenthood — from about 12 percent of children in 1970 to about 27 percent now — more recently have played an important role in fueling child-poverty rates.
Single parenthood is not the factor driving child poverty in America, but it is a factor. One obvious reason is that a family with only one breadwinner has only one potential source of income. Replacing a second income with benefits from a government program is extremely expensive.
2. Two is greater than one — even in Europe.
One could be left with the impression that single parenthood has almost nothing to do with poverty in Europe and America after reading the article by Brady et al. We have already shown this is not the case for child poverty in America. But what about child poverty in Europe?
Well, it turns out that even in Europe children are more likely to be poor if they are living in a family headed by a single parent. Research done by social scientists Janet Gornick and Markus Jäntti indicates that children being raised by a single parent are about three times as likely to be living in a poor family as children being raised by two parents, even after accounting for generous welfare policies in Europe.
In fact, this is true even in Scandinavia. Relative to children in two-parent families, children in single-mother homes are about three times as likely to be poor in Denmark and Sweden, more than four times as likely to be poor in Norway, and nearly five times as likely to be poor in Finland, after taking into account their welfare policies.
Now, it’s true that the levels of child poverty in Scandinavia are markedly lower than those in the United States — indeed, about 75 percent lower because of their social policies. And it’s also true that the unique poverty risk associated with single parenthood generally goes away when you control for other factors, such as age, education, and employment, as Brady and his colleagues have done. What that misses is that mother-headed families are more likely to be formed as the result of an unplanned birth outside of marriage or a committed relationship, and that these unexpected births tend to occur at young ages, to interrupt a young woman’s education, and to make it less likely that she will ever marry or form a stable partnership and have the second income that such a partnership makes possible.
In other words, even today, one reason that two parents are generally better than one parent, economically speaking, is that having two parents in the home dramatically increases the odds not only that at least one parent is working full-time but also that there are two parents working on behalf of the children. And this is true even in Europe.
3. Poverty begins at home.
Brady and his colleagues make much of the fact that three other factors — age of household head, education, and employment — are better predictors of overall poverty in America than is single motherhood. But what they don’t tell us is that these very factors are influenced by an adult’s family structure of origin. To wit: The social science tells us that children raised by single parents are significantly more likely to have children young, to drop out of high school, and to work less as young adults. Not surprisingly, the children of single-parent families are more likely to end up poor as young adults.
In America at least, the long arm of single parenthood seems to extend into adulthood.
Indeed, new research from economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine indicates that young adults are at least ten percentage points less likely to be poor at age 25 if they were born to married parents, as opposed to an unmarried mother. These effects are especially strong for children born to mothers in the middle of the educational and age distribution — that is, for “children of mothers with high school degrees and mothers in their early/mid-20s.” In other words, in America at least, the long arm of single parenthood seems to extend into adulthood, increasing the likelihood that children of single parents will be poor as adults, compared with adults who were raised in intact, two-parent families.
In their op-ed, David Brady and his colleagues remind us both that single motherhood is not the only driver of contemporary poverty and that social-welfare policy has dramatically reduced poverty in Europe — including for single mothers. But they obscure the economic disadvantages that children in single-mother families in America and even in Europe typically face. One need not “shame” single mothers to point out an obvious fact: It’s hard to replace the $40,000 man — that’s the approximate median salary for men who are high-school graduates — even if the government rolls out a generous child allowance, subsidized child care, paid parental leave, and the like.
The bottom line: It’s useful to point out that family structure is not destiny. But the evidence suggests it remains important and shouldn’t be dismissed as one important factor affecting children in particular.