Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Child Poverty and Marriage

Reihan Salam disagrees with David Frum who writes:
America suffers much more child poverty [because of]... our much lower levels of social spending, which mean that poor families receive far less social support than do poor families in other countries.
Salam makes the case that a more important explanation is the rise in female-headed households, particularly in comparison to other wealthy countries.  He points to evidence appearing to show that a rise in female-headed houses has led to a considerable rise in child poverty.
"had the proportion of children living in female-headed families remained constant since 1970, the child poverty rate would have been 3.4 percentage points lower than its actual 1998 level."
That makes sense.  He then links to other apparent evidence that in Europe, where some semblance of familial cohesion is much more common, rates of child poverty are much lower.
"out-of-wedlock births are as common in many European countries as in the United States. But the estimated percentage of fifteen year olds living with both of their biological parents is far lower in the United States that in Western Europe. Even in Sweden, where nonmarital births are almost twice as common as in the United States, most unmarried parents raise their children together. "
I think this is reasonable, but the truth is that there are many factors.  The greater availability of social services in Europe would seem an important factor.  Furthermore, the marriage explanation doesn't take the place of Frum's analysis. 

It's kind of a chicken vs. egg thing.  Low-income marriage failure is inseparable from lack of social support and capital.  I think that marriage could be a large driver, but the lack of social support is a policy failure that perpetuates it.  The idea that poor unmarried European parents are staying together to raise their kid would seem to support this.  To the extent that a young man knocks up a female, and then is frightened by the idea of having to care for and provide for it, he would seem much less likely to want to stay around.  Again however, the social issues here seem very complex.

I'd like to say though, in thinking about corrective measures, that social spending seems the obvious choice.  You've presented evidence that would seem to blow any argument for deterrence out of the water; young kids are still having sex and not staying together.  So at a minimum, maintenance-level, providing pre-natal care, counseling, home-visits, paid-leave, etc. would all relieve significant burdens.

As a preventative though, the problem needs to be viewed as a deficit of human and social capital.  These young kids are making poor choices because of a lack of capital, which then buys them agency.  Generationally, the family becomes caught in a cycle of bad choices, which in turn leads to a depleted capacity for capital growth.  The state can, via targeted intervention, increase capital in mothers and then their children from ages 0 to 18. 

Not only is this an effective approach, but one that will pay for itself many times over in the long run.  Ultimately we can think of this as a human right, as every American child ought to be guaranteed a sufficient level of human and social capital so that he or she may have a relatively good chance to be successful in life.  If the parent is not providing the capital, then there is a strong case that the constitution mandates that the state step in.

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