The Corner

Culture

Poverty and Single Mothers in the New York Times

Over the weekend the New York Times published a piece arguing that “Single Mothers Are Not the Problem”: that is, “not the reason we have unusually high poverty in the United States, compared with other rich democracies.” The authors note, for example, that “among households headed by working-age adults, 8.8 percent of people lived in single-mother households in 2013” — suggesting it’s hard to put a dent in the overall poverty rate by making changes for this small demographic.

Fair enough, though I’m not sure too many people blame poverty in general on single mothers. What people do say is that single motherhood dramatically increases poverty among moms and their children — an intuition buttressed by simple statistics. As Child Trends notes, 20 percent of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2015, including 43 percent of those living in single-mother households but only 10 percent of those in married-couple households. Even in Europe, kids in single-mother households usually have more than double the poverty rate of those in married-couple households.

So what on earth are the Times authors talking about when they further claim that “in a majority of rich democracies, single mothers are not more likely to be poor”? They are referring to the results of a complicated study they published last year, one that’s worth delving into a bit.

Using data on individuals from 29 countries, they calculated the “prevalence” in each country of four phenomena often tied to poverty — single motherhood, unemployment, having a young head of household, and having low education. In addition, they created statistical models to calculate the “penalties” associated with these factors in each country — that is, the degree to which being in a single-parent household, etc., made a person more likely to be poor. These models included other control variables as well, such as whether the person’s household had more than one earner. (Poverty here is defined as a disposable income less than half the median for the country the person lives in, and the incomes are adjusted for household size.)

It’s a valuable study, tying together data from nations across the world and revealing differences in the way their residents behave and the penalties they incur. However, the results for single motherhood in particular — smaller penalties than you might think, and no penalty at all in many countries — are rather hard to interpret.

No one says that single-mother households have higher poverty rates by magic; rather, the claim is that such households have higher poverty rates because they’re bound to bring in less money than a two-adult household would. A single-mother household doesn’t have the option of having both parents work, for example, which not only reduces its potential income but guarantees that the entire household is unemployed whenever the mother is. When, in trying to assess the effects of single motherhood, you control for both household-wide unemployment and whether the household has two earners, you frame these factors as separate causes of poverty rather than as results of single motherhood that in turn cause poverty.

To give a more concrete and dramatic example, say a woman has a child at 17 and drops out of school to raise him. From that point forward, she earns a low income when she works, and when she suffers spells of unemployment her household has no income at all save for government aid. The casual observer would probably say she is at an elevated risk of poverty because she became a mother before she was ready and without the help of a partner.

Relying on this study’s results, however, one might characterize her situation differently. In this light, she doesn’t suffer much of a penalty at all for being a single mother per se. Instead, she is at increased risk of poverty because she heads a household while being young, uneducated, and sometimes unemployed.

That’s true in a way. But it amounts to an argument that single motherhood doesn’t dramatically increase one’s chances of poverty . . . once you eliminate the biggest mechanisms through which single motherhood might increase one’s chances of poverty.

None of this, of course, bears on the deeper questions of whether it’s possible to improve family structures through government policy (I’m doubtful) or whether we could significantly increase social support for single mothers without nudging things in the other direction (I’m skeptical of that, too, though I encourage you to check out the study’s discussion of how “penalties” and “prevalences” relate to each other across countries). But it’s just common sense that life with kids is easier, financially and otherwise, when you have two adults in the picture, and nothing in this study truly suggests otherwise.

Over at City Journal, Kay Hymowitz has some other good points about the op-ed, including its claim that single motherhood is on the decline and the fact it ignores negative non-economic consequences of single parenthood.

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