Attention New York Times: Family Structure Does Matter!


Odds are you might know someone who is a single mother. What is her life like? How is she doing financially? What is her standard of living? It’s quite likely that she is living paycheck to paycheck, or is even receiving some sort of welfare benefit to help pay the bills.

No one wants to see people struggling to get by, and in order to fix that we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions about what drives poverty. One of those factors is family structure, with single parenthood largely contributing to many people and their children living in poverty. A recent study published by the Brookings Institute and the American Enterprise Institute emphasizes the importance of marriage before having children in fighting against poverty in the United States.

Three sociologists, David Brady, Ryan Finnegan, and Sabine Hübgen, have taken issue with this study, claiming that “reducing single motherhood here would not substantially reduce poverty” for ordinary households because, in a “majority of rich countries, single mothers are not more likely to be poor.” Rather, they claim that unemployment, low education, and age are better predictors of poverty than single motherhood.

But de-emphasizing single motherhood means ignoring a significant factor in child poverty. As Brad Wilcox and Isabel Sawhill explain, several problems arise by omitting that.

To begin with, children living in single-mother families are about five times as likely to be poor, compared with children living in married, two-parent families. This is clear in a recent analysis of trends in the official poverty rate from our colleague Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution.

Moreover, research done by one of us, Isabel Sawhill, indicates that if the share of children in single-parent families had remained steady at the 1970 level, then the current child-poverty rate would be cut by about one-fifth, even after adjusting for the fact that single mother have different characteristics from married mothers. In other words, dramatic increases in single parenthood — from about 12 percent of children in 1970 to about 27 percent now — more recently have played an important role in fueling child-poverty rates.

Wilcox and Sawhill also note that two are better than one; that goes for Europe and for the United States as well.

[I]t turns out that even in Europe children are more likely to be poor if they are living in a family headed by a single parent. Research done by social scientists Janet Gornick and Markus Jäntti indicates that children being raised by a single parent are about three times as likely to be living in a poor family as children being raised by two parents, even after accounting for generous welfare policies in Europe.

Even controlling for European countries’ expansive welfare states, the facts still show that having both parents in the home lessens the likelihood that they will live in poverty. Removing one parent from the equation often creates a problem where mom or dad has to work, but there is no one to look out for the child. Hence, off to daycare it is, and off goes a large portion of the parent’s income.

Having both parents in the home significantly reduces the likelihood that a family will be poor. The structure in two-parent homes works to reduce poverty in ways no other institution can match. Refusing to recognize and be honest about the effects of single parenthood on socioeconomic status does a disservice to our children.