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Marriage Isn't the Answer to Poverty

The emphasis on single mothers overshadows other important factors


Conservative policy researchers have recently been pushing marriage as the solution to low economic mobility, high poverty, and even domestic violence. Likewise, conservative policymakers like Representative Paul Ryan, Senator Marco Rubio, and Senator Mike Lee have all pushed marriage as the best path to higher economic mobility. At an event commemorating 50 years since the start of the War on Poverty, Rubio stated that “the greatest tool 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 spending program. It’s called marriage.” While these ideas are red meat for the right wing, their evidence generally comes from misreading or overstating the data. 

Many of these claims are based on a high-profile economic study published last year by economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren from Harvard and Patrick Klein and Emmanuel Saez from Berkeley. The study explored the geographic variation of intergenerational economic mobility across the United States—that is, how many people in various parts of the country are able, across generations, to move up the economic ladder. The study found—among other things—that people born in places with a higher share of single mothers tend to have lower economic mobility.

The first red flag for the single-mothers-cause-poverty claim should come from the fact that the variation in levels of mobility apply to all children in the community, not just for the children from single-parent households. As the study says: “Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility in communities with fewer single parents.” So, a child who has two parents, born and raised in an area with a higher-than-average number of single parents, may still struggle to move up the economic ladder.  

While the share of single mothers in a community is strongly associated with the level of economic mobility in that community, it explains only a fraction of the reasons why people in some areas remain worse off than people in other areas. The emphasis on single mothers excludes other factors that are just as, if not more, important to understanding economic mobility—factors like inequality, growth, and unemployment, as well as social factors like segregation by race and income. As the study indicates, these factors are also associated with different levels of mobility. Furthermore, research by Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has found that poverty and unemployment has a negative impact on family life. Single motherhood may be a symptom, not a cause, of low economic mobility.

In a recent study, I drilled deeper into the data to look at the relationship between family structure and mobility. The map below (click to enlarge) shows the difference between a community’s economic mobility and the expected level of mobility, given the portion of households led by single mothers. Green regions are areas that are more economically mobile than would be expected; brown regions are areas where the mobility is much lower. 

As the map shows, there are large parts of the country where people are actually faring better than the model that prioritizes single mothers would have it. But there are also many places where people are faring worse. Many of the parts of the country that are shaded brown were hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Work by economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson highlights the impact trade with China has had on workers in those parts of the country.

Even if single mothers were primarily responsible for low mobility, is it really a practical solution to say that they should just get and stay married? If one is looking at the family, and its relationship to economic mobility, a far more important element may be workplace flexibility. New work by Washington Center for Equitable Growth economist Heather Boushey and her assistant Alexandra Mitukiewicz highlights this connection. When parents, single or otherwise, have the flexibility to take time off to care for a sick child, participate in parent-teacher conferences, etc. the children—particularly children from low-income or single parent households—benefit through higher academic achievement.

The focus on fixing single mothers serves as a distraction from the economic and social factors that also impact mobility—sometimes in much greater ways than single parenthood. None of this is meant to say that marriage is a bad thing (most Americans want to expand access to marriage), but conservative marriage promotion policies are not the solution to the problems of high inequality and low mobility.

Image via shutterstock.