Get a Spouse (sha-na-na-na. . . )

January 11, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

A bumper sticker I used to occasionally see said, “I fight poverty. I work.”

In this fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, we should remember the difference between individual solutions to individual problems and societal or governmental solutions to social problems.  Yes, you’re less likely to be poor if you have a job. But exhorting the unemployed to go out and get a job is unlikely to have much effect on overall rates of poverty. 

The same can be said of marriage. In a recent speech, Sen. Marco Rubio offered the conservative approach to poverty.  The Rubio bumper sticker would say, “I fight poverty. I have a spouse.”  Here’s what he said:
 the greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn't a government program. It's called marriage.
His evidence was drawn from a Heritage Foundation paper by Robert Rector.  Rector used Census data showing that poverty rates among single-parent families were much higher than among two-parent families – 37.1% vs. 6.8%.  “Being raised in a married family reduced child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.”

As Philip Cohen (here) pointed out, the same logic applies even more so to employment.
The median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.
Philip apparently thought that this analogy would make the fallacy of the Rubio-Rector claim obvious, for he didn’t bother to spell it out. The point is that singling out marriage or employment as a cause ignores all the reasons why people don’t have jobs or spouses. It also implies that a job is a job and a spouse is a spouse, and that there is no difference between those of the middle-class and those of the poor.  (Philip should have spelled out the obvious. These logical problems did not bother PolitiFact , which rated Rubio’s claim as “mostly true.”)

According to Rubio, Rector, and PolitiFact, if all poor women with children got married, the child-poverty rate in the US would decrease by 82%.  Or at the individual level, if a poor single woman got married, her children would be nearly certain (93.2% likely) to be un-poor.

To illustrate the society-wide impact of marriage on poverty, Rubio-Rector look at the increase in out-of-wedlock births.  Here is a graph from Rector’s article.

The rate rises from about 7% in 1959 to 40-41% today.  If Rubio is right, rates of child poverty should have risen steadily right along with this increase (almost invariably  referred to as “the alarming” increase) in out-of-wedlock births.  The graph below shows poverty rates for families with children under 18.

Both show a large decrease in poverty in the first decade or so of the War on Poverty – between 1959 and 1974, the rate for all families was cut in half.  Since then the rate has remained between 9% and 12%.  The line for unmarried mothers shows something else that Rubio and Rector ignore: the effects of forces that individuals have no power over, things like the overall economy.  In the good years of 1990s, the chance that a single mother would be below the poverty line fell from nearly half (47%) to one-third.  Her marital status did not change, but her chances of being in poverty did.  The number of families in poverty fell from 6.7 million to 5.1 million – despite the increase in population and despite the increase in percentage of children born out of wedlock. There were more single mothers, but fewer of them were in poverty.

Addendum, January 12:  The title of this post refers to the classic oldie “Get a Job” (Silhouettes, 1957). The final lines of that song could, with only some slight editing, apply to Sen. Rubio and his colleagues:

In the Senate and the House
I hear the right-wing mouths,
Preachin’ and a cryin’
Tell me that I’m lyin’
’Bout a spouse
That I never could find.
(Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na.)


Bob S. said...

Isn't the chart on Poverty a little misleading since it is calculated AFTER income redistribution?

Through out the years, we have pushed more and more money to those who are poor. That chart just shows that redistribution.

Jay Livingston said...

It depends on what you mean by “redistribution.” The calculation does not include non-cash benefits or tax breaks. No Medicare or Medicaid, no Food Stamps, no EITC, no housing subsidies. In fact, one of the conservative complaints about the official poverty rate is that it omits these items. If the calculation included them, the official poverty rate would be lower.

This post is about the alleged effect of out-of-wedlock births on poverty. The point is not about the absolute number or rate; it’s about changes in that rate relative to changes in out-of-wedlock births. Even if your bathroom scale is off by several pounds, as long as you’re using the same scale, it will tell you whether you’re gaining weight. And that information will help you judge whether that low-carb diet you went on is having an effect.