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American Poverty, Single Parenthood, and the National Review

The New York Times published an article today discussing a disturbing trend: more than one in three young families – defined as under the age of 30 with children – is currently living in poverty.  This is the highest percentage on record for this group.  Some of the other statistics are not surprising – the highest rates of child poverty exist in black and Hispanic families, single-parent households, etc.  Here are the grim facts:

Economists cited several reasons for the rise. First was the economy. College degrees hold greater value now, while opportunities for low-skilled workers have dwindled, as manufacturing and other industries have declined. That has pushed more young families into poverty. The number of men in their 20s with only a high school degree who worked full time fell by 22 percent from 2007 to 2010, while those with a college degree dropped by just 1 percent, according to census data. Fewer than a third of high school dropouts in their 20s were working full time last year. At the same time, the fortunes of poorer Americans, especially those with children, are more closely tied to the labor market because welfare reform in the 1990s made cash assistance harder to obtain. It was hailed as a success for getting more mothers to work, but now that jobs are scarce, young families have little to fall back on. In an analysis of government transfers over time, Professor Moffitt found that aid to the elderly living on less than half of poverty-level income rose by 13 percent from 1984 to 2004, while aid to single-parent families in the same situation dropped by about 38 percent. “The worst-off families have been left behind,” Professor Moffitt said.

The burden of poverty falls disproportionately on the children in these households, given that one in three families has difficulty providing for their family.  It is a disgrace that, in one of the most developed countries in the world, this is the reality. Heather MacDonald of the National Review offered an explanation that I misinterprets a symptom for a cause.   She wonders why the “mainstream media” (what a hilarious term) never highlights the fact that single parenthood is the most accurate predictor of poverty status.   Like her colleague, David French, who I wrote about recently on this blog, she doesn’t seem to understand causality.   1.  Causality

“In 2007, single-parent families were nearly six times more likely to be poor than married-parent families; that ratio has not significantly changed. The closest the Times comes to acknowledging the role of single parenthood in child poverty is to note that blacks and Hispanics have the highest rates of child poverty. Why that would be, the Times does not say, but it’s just what you’d expect from groups whose illegitimacy rates are 73 percent and 53 percent, respectively.”

Aside from the fact that this is an unambiguously racist argument, I will posit a few reasons while those people with skin a shade darker than Ms. MacDonald may happen to raise their children in a single-parent household.  A year ago, Lexington, the columnist for the Economist, wrote a piece titled “Sex and the Single Black Woman.” In it, he reviews a book called “The Logic of Life,” which posits an interesting explanation for this phenomenon:

In the marriage market, numbers matter. And among African-Americans, the disparity is much worse than in Mr Harford’s imaginary example. Between the ages of 20 and 29, one black man in nine is behind bars. For black women of the same age, the figure is about one in 150. For obvious reasons, convicts are excluded from the dating pool. And many women also steer clear of ex-cons, which makes a big difference when one young black man in three can expect to be locked up at some point. Removing so many men from the marriage market has profound consequences. As incarceration rates exploded between 1970 and 2007, the proportion of US-born black women aged 30-44 who were married plunged from 62% to 33%. Why this happened is complex and furiously debated. The era of mass imprisonment began as traditional mores were already crumbling, following the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the invention of the contraceptive pill. It also coincided with greater opportunities for women in the workplace. These factors must surely have had something to do with the decline of marriage.

In this argument, the author explains why larger trends in the black community toward greater incarceration may explain the drop in marriage rates.  Ms. MacDonald might raise the point that social dysfunction is the reason incarceration is on the rise.  Wrong.

Could it be, however, that mass incarceration is a symptom of increasing social dysfunction, and that it was this social dysfunction that caused marriage to wither? Probably not. For similar crimes, America imposes much harsher penalties than other rich countries. Mr Charles and Mr Luoh controlled for crime rates, as a proxy for social dysfunction, and found that it made no difference to their results. They concluded that “higher male imprisonment has lowered the likelihood that women marry…and caused a shift in the gains from marriage away from women and towards men.”

The legacy of "Just Say No"

And why did incarceration rates explode among young black and Hispanic men?  There are lots of reasons – in the 80’s, the crack epidemic and Ronald Reagan’s spectacularly counterproductive “Just Say No” campaign (see the graph at the left), coupled with draconian penalties for drug possession, saw the prison population skyrocket.  With harsh restrictions placed on felons, rates of recidivism hover at around 60% at any given time – meaning that most ex-cons are back in jail within three years.   Most recently, the for-profit prison lobby helped the Arizona state legislature draft a controversial bill designed to put more illegal immigrants in jail.  More prisoners is, of course, good for business. Here is the conclusion, which would seem to support Ms. MacDonald’s conclusion:

The collapse of the traditional family has made black Americans far poorer and lonelier than they would otherwise have been. The least-educated black women suffer the most. In 2007 only 11% of US-born black women aged 30-44 without a high school diploma had a working spouse, according to the Pew Research Centre. Their college-educated sisters fare better, but are still affected by the sex imbalance. Because most seek husbands of the same race—96% of married black women are married to black men—they are ultimately fishing in the same pool.

This, of course, is only one part of her argument.  She seems to posit that women are having children out of wedlock because they are fundamentally irresponsible and do not care for the prospect of marriage.  According to “The Logic of Life,” this is not the case.  What did not happen is that all of a sudden black and Hispanic men decided to no longer become good Christians and just divorce their wives en masse, leaving them in poverty.  Such a shame that this isn’t the easy fix she claims it to be. This is one example of causality that Ms. MacDonald might prefer to overlook, since, if you trace the roots of single-parenthood among minorities back to its roots, it has less to do with the fundamental “depravity of the poor” and much more to do with social policies that have disenfranchised the poorer segments of the population over time – in large part, due to the platforms of the political party she supports. 2.  The Mainstream Media

“The ban on discussing the effect of family breakdown is not surprising, since the single mother has become the cornerstone of Democratic politics. She provides the justification for the continuous expansion of the welfare state. Whether the topic is government-provided health care for the poor, taxpayer-funded housing for homeless families, federal Section 8 rental vouchers, more early-childhood-intervention programs, or greater redistribution of income from the rich to the poor, the frequent flyers in all these programs are single mothers. They provide the largest constituency for every means-tested government poverty program in the country, and they are a growing constituency.”

In this paragraph, Ms. MacDonald is reminding us that the subtle racist undertones of her first statement were not a fluke, and that she is, indeed, a racist. In this point, she is claiming that the mainstream media is the Fox News of the Democratic Party.  In Ms. MacDonald’s warped sense of reality, by pointing out the fact that single parenthood and deadbeat dads are the sole source for poverty in the United States, the New York Times risks alienating its key constituency and the party for which it is (not) a mouthpiece.   It’s just crazy. Regardless of this obvious fallacy, let’s dissect the argument.  The New York Times does not want to alienate these people because they want them at the voting booths, creating a welfare state that is intolerable for the National Review.  Unfortunately for Ms. MacDonald, the racist, the population is steadily becoming less white, which will empower minorities to elect officials that will reduce the penalties for the harsh drug laws that send one in three black men to prison during their lifetime.  Right? Wrong again.  Blacks and Hispanics are becoming increasingly marginalized at the polls as the GOP clandestinely makes it more difficult for minorities to cast a ballot, requiring new forms of ID and making it difficult organizations to conduct voter drives.  Basically, they are screwed. I could go on, but it is not worth it.  I have been reading politics for the better part of the last five years.  I am not that old, and I understand that every generation thinks its political situation is worse than the ones that preceded it.  But I swear – the discourse was never like this.  Ronald Reagan, the hero of the National Review raised taxes 11 times during his presidency and supported amnesty for illegal immigrants who had laid roots in this country.  It is absolutely amazing to me that people like this are even given the time of day when they posit arguments like this.  The party of Ms. MacDonald has flown off the handle.  But she is a symptom of a much larger, more nefarious problem with the political discourse in this country. The fact remains that the poverty rate, the income inequality gap, the wealth gap, and incarceration rates are at record levels.  If you haven’t read it already, do yourself a favor and read Timothy Noah’s ten-part series in Slate magazine titled “The United States of Inequality.”  Is single parenthood to blame?  Let’s ask Heather MacDonald:

“There is a far more efficient solution to family poverty and the childhood problems associated with single-parent families: Revive the marriage norm among the poor. Public policy’s ability to restore the expectation that children be raised by both their parents is undoubtedly limited. But it is better to try than to do nothing. And making child poverty a political issue without mentioning father absence is worse than doing nothing.”

I agree.  As a country, we should be trying to figure out how to reduce incarceration rates and look for other root causes for the breakdown of the family unit, and address them through smart policy.  Abstinence-only education and “just say no” probably are not going to cut it. It is amazing how someone can spend five paragraphs making child poverty a political issue, and the close with a line disparaging people who make child poverty a political issue.  Remember, however, that the New York Times is only making it a political issue because, in Ms. MacDonald’s mind, it is a stump for the Democratic Party, which minorities disproportionately support – the same minorities whose high rates of single parenthood are the major reason for their impoverished state.  Fortunately for the world, she has identified the silver bullet we have all been looking for!  It has been right under our noses all this time!   Would loving, heterosexual, two-parent households end poverty in this country?  If you are Heather MacDonald, the answer is irrefutably yes.

UPDATE: A friend sent an email offering a nice counterpoint to my argument.  Here is what he had to say:

Interesting post.  I’m really surprised you took such offense to that article.  Maybe I’ve become a heartless bastard, but I am surprised you also think that her argument is racist.  I think the angle of attacking the MSM is a tricky one, and yes, I generally think that Republicans are an insane, anti-intellectual, party of revisionist historians. But I wholeheartedly agree with what I think is a predominately feminist (not racist) and pragmatic undertone to the column.

The big problem is not single mothers but men that leave their wives and children.  That is a serious issue.  Extremely serious.  Outside of the US context, from my limited time in Swaziland, I think that a complete lack of a family unit was the biggest driver of the country’s public health crisis (as in, the country could literally become extinct).  Mothers with babies are everywhere, and fathers are nowhere.

As for why I don’t think the argument is racist, I point to a recent interaction that I had with a friend of a friend that teaches at a school in southern Illinois that has worse poverty rates than those we work with for GOTO.  All of the students are white.  All of them.  And they have tremendously similar issues to poor blacks with the friend I talked to using a lot of the same language that conservatives use when talking about other single parent families that we think of as generally black.

Families matter a lot.  A lot lot.  We both come from insanely supportive families and have no clue what it’s like to have only known your father to be someone that had sex with your mom.  This is an issue, and the fact that it mainly occurs in minority families is unfortunate but true and not racist.  No more prejudiced than saying that Cambridge is really liberal.  It is.  Liberals live there. I hope I’m making my point or a point without being offensive or combative, but I take this issue extremely seriously, and I think it is at the crux of so many developmental issues.

Ultimately, change is driven from within, and it comes from the family.  As a consultant, I think it would be irresponsible to look at the horrendous state of poor American families and not emphasize it and not notice that its most rampant incidence is among poor minorities.  I’ll close this by noting that Bill Cosby, a black man, reiterates a lot of the same points that MacDonald does. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/05/-8216-this-is-how-we-lost-to-the-white-man-8217/6774/

And another:

I personally found both the NYT article and the Review article to be a little too dramatic (i.e. the “interview” with the single mom who looks for a job, and pretty much anything the Review writes)  so I went to the Northeastern sourcehttp://www.northeastern.edu/clms/wp-content/uploads/The-Impact-of-Rising-Poverty-on-the-Nation.pdf After reading that, I basically just thought the Times and the Review are trying to draw more of a conclusion than is available from the data.  What I struggle with is they’re attempt to portray what a “young family with a head under 30 years of age” looks like.

So let’s say it’s 2010, you’re 25 years old, married, and about to have your first child (this is the average age of first child birth). And let’s say the child bearing mother takes off time from work to give birth leaving her spouse to support the family. On average, I can’t imagine that a 25 year old dude 2-3 years out of college in the US even makes a per capital income of more than 30K…probably much less given the economy. So that means the “NORMAL” young family probably has at least 3 members with a combined household income of 20-30K. I think that basically means you’re POOR.

Thinking of it that way, I’d say the 30-40% rate doesn’t surprise me at all….but obviously that profile isn’t exactly what people imagine as “POOR”. If you look at table 3, in 1993, young families had poverty levels almost equal to current levels. By 2010, these individuals were in the 30-64 age bracket and had much lower poverty levels. I know there’s concerns about long term job prospects for currently young families, but I’m not sure the data in here suggests that these people are fucked. I really think it just says you’re young. Anyways….long winded way of saying I’m skeptical of all interpretations of this data…..