Failed efforts to dismiss family structure in explaining poverty; and poverty’s biggest correlates

8 Jan

Two good articles on poverty.

First Brad Wilcox explains how hopeless are the efforts to dismiss family structure (explain away or just treat as spurious).

From his AEI blog:

Today, the Council for Contemporary Families (CCF) called marriage an “ineffective weapon in the War on Poverty” in a report issued in honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” After admitting that “children raised in single-parent homes fare worse on a wide range of outcomes…than children raised by two biological parents,” the report, written by sociologist Kristi Williams, went on to argue that post-1996 welfare reform efforts to push marriage are of no help in the battle against poverty.

The CCF report makes much of the following two facts:

  1. When single mothers marry in the wake of a nonmarital birth, neither they nor their children seem to benefit from marriage, especially if they marry someone besides the children’s father; and,
  2. Recent evaluations of federally funded programs to strengthen marriage indicate that most programs did not succeed in strengthening the quality and stability of family life among poor married and unmarried families.

Neither of these two facts is particularly surprising. Scholars have known for a long time that putting marriage after the baby carriage is risky-particularly when the marriage involves a man who is not the baby’s father. Deborah Roempke Graefe (Penn State) and Daniel Lichter (Cornell) pointed out this very fact more than a decade ago, and noted: “When the new husband is not the biological father, the presence of a child may strain economic resources and be a source of conflict (leading, for example, to arguments over visitation rights or resource allocation within the household).” So it’s not news that marriage is no panacea for poor single mothers.

Read the rest here

And then, another excellent article by Brad Wilcox summarizing major social scientific studies identifying the three most important predictors of poverty rates at the aggregate level.  He explains that income inequality, which is a separate issue from poverty (shouldn’t have to be mentioned, but it is amazing how many conflate the two), is a poor place to look if you want to address poverty.

Economic inequality is the “defining challenge of our time,” President Barack Obama declared in a speech last month to the Center for American Progress. Inequality is dangerous, he argued, not merely because it’s unseemly to have a large gap between the rich and the poor, but because inequality, itself, destroys upward mobility, making it harder for the poor to escape from poverty. “Increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream,” he said.

Obama is only the most prominent public figure to declare inequality Public Enemy #1 and the greatest threat to reducing poverty in America. CAP’s new Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Princeton economist Alan Krueger, and economist Miles Corak (with his famous Great Gatsby Curve) have all argued that it’s harder for the poor to climb the economic ladder today because the rungs in that ladder have grown farther apart. In Krueger’s words, countries like the United States with high inequality tend to have less upward mobility “for children from low-income families.”

But for all the new attention devoted to the 1 percent, a new dataset from the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard and Berkeley suggests that, if we care about upward mobility overall, we’re vastly exaggerating the dangers of the rich-poor gap. Inequality itself is not a particularly potent predictor of economic mobility, as sociologist Scott Winship noted in a recent article with his colleague Donald Schneider based on their analysis of this data.

So what factors, at the community level, do predict if poor children will move up the economic ladder as adults? What explains, for instance, why the Salt Lake City metro area is one of the 100 largest metropolitan areas most likely to lift the fortunes of the poor and the Atlanta metro area is one of the least likely?

Harvard economist Raj Chetty, a principal investigator at the Equality of Opportunity Project, has pointed to economic and racial segregation, community density, the size of a community’s middle class, the quality of schools, community religiosity, and family structure, which he calls the “single strongest correlate of upward mobility.” Chetty finds that communities like Salt Like City, with high levels of two-parent families and religiosity, are much more likely to see poor children get ahead than communities like Atlanta, with high levels of racial and economic segregation.

Chetty has not yet issued a multivariate analysis of the project’s data that compares the relative predictive power of each of these factors. Based on my OLS regression analyses of the data, of the factors that Chetty has highlighted, the following three seem to be most predictive of rags-to-riches mobility in a given community:

  1. Per-capita income growth
  2. Prevalence of single mothers (where correlation is strong, but negative)
  3. Per-capita local government spending

In other words, communities with high levels of per-capita income growth, high percentages of two-parent families, and high local government spending—which may be a proxy for good schools—are the most likely to help poor children relive the Horatio Alger story. 

Read the rest here

Here’s his graph on poverty and single-parenthood:

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