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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Robert Samuelson Gives Us Another Example of the Single-Parent Fallacy

Robert Samuelson Gives Us Another Example of the Single-Parent Fallacy

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Monday, 13 January 2014 06:03

This Monday morning's gift comes in a column discussing the state of battle in the War on Poverty. He tells readers:

"Worse, the breakdown of marriage and spread of single-parent households suggest that poverty may grow. From 1963 to 2012, the share of families with children under 18 headed by a single parent tripled to 32 percent. It’s 26 percent among whites, 34 percent among Hispanics and 59 percent among African Americans. Just why is murky. Low-income men may flunk as attractive marriage mates. Or, “women can live independently more easily rather than put up with less satisfactory marriages,” as Brookings’s Isabel Sawhill says. Regardless of the causes and despite many exceptions, children in single-parent households face a harder future. They’re more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant before age 20 or be unemployed. Poverty becomes self-perpetuating."

The fallacy is that children are more likely to face hardship if their parents separate as oppose to remain together in a bad marriage. This point is easy to see.

Suppose that one third of marriages are very bad and possibly abusive, however it is illegal to get a divorce so that all parents remain married. Now suppose laws and norms change so that these parents can now divorce. In this case, we would have one-third of parents (mostly women) raising children on their own. Since these parents are the sole support of their kids, it wouldn't be surprising that their children would have a more difficult time than children who could benefit from the financial and emotional support of two loving parents. In addition, because the most troubled families had broken up, the married couples after the change in laws and norms would provide more nurturing families on average than before the change.

While a simple comparison of children in two-parent families and single-parent would undoubtedly show that children in two-parent families are doing better. However, it is wrong to infer from this fact that the children in single-parent families are doing poorly because their parents broke up. Whether or not children of parents who have a bad relationship are better off if they stay together is far more questionable.

The most obvious way to deal with the problems faced by children in single-parent families is to improve public supports such as quality child care and paid sick days. Countries that have such supports do not see the same story in child outcomes as the United States.

 

 

Comments (14)Add Comment
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written by Alex Bollinger, January 13, 2014 9:32
I discussed this on an earlier thread because it's an important point: no matter the statistical outcomes of kids from single-parent families vs. 2 (or more... think Full House) parent families, the government shouldn't be in the business of meddling with people's conjugal relationships. It's creepy in general, abusive in some cases, and it's the type of government intervention that's destined to create poor outcomes. People are not stupid - if they're not married, they probably have a good reason.

Samuelson's reasons in the paragraph just after the one quoted above say it all: the government should cut SNAP and TANF so that single mothers get married. Marriage puts pressure on women to have sex with their husbands, who they married not because they genuinely wanted to but because their kids are starving. I have nothing against people who do that work for a living, but I think it's abhorrent that Samuelson would want the government to force women into it.

And the Washington Post is willing to print that smut because it's couched in political language.

Additionally it's important to remember that many of the benefits of marriage are only important if you are middle or upper class. Your partner's health care isn't something you can access to through marriage if your partner doesn't have health care (and if you're both on medicaid, marriage doesn't do anything). Having your partner inherit your house without a tax penalty isn't important if you don't own a home. Etc.

It's not much of a stretch to think that married couples tend to be richer because richer people benefit more from getting married. It's just another way of saying that those for whom marriage is optimal in the status quo are already married, so pressuring more people to marry is only going to impose marriage on relationships that will not benefit from marriage.

Last, this whole discussion about marriage and parents is just a distraction away from the issue of how much access children have to resources. Notice Samuelson's logic: Black children are more likely to come from single-parent homes, and Black people have lower incomes on average, so single-parent homes must cause lower incomes for their children. Nope, couldn't be systemic racism at all. Denying African Americans the same opportunities for several centuries and then creating a system whereby a child's parents' incomes largely determine that child's success later in life could not possibly cause a cycle of poverty!
[Not for publication]
written by H. S. Rockwood III, January 13, 2014 11:19
A comment for Dean Baker
I like your blog very much and read it every day. You have consistent difficulty using semi-colons and the word “however.” Let me illustrate with two passages in your post today.
In the first one,
“Suppose that one third of marriages are very bad and possible abusive, however it is illegal to get a divorce so that all parents remain married,”
you link two independent clauses (each of which could stand alone) with a comma followed by “however.” Technically, the passage is a comma splice.
My suggested rewrite:
“Suppose that one third of marriages are very bad and possibly abusive; it is illegal, however, to get a divorce so that all parents remain married. “
Notice that I have moved the “however” to a place where it will have more effect. (I assume the “possible” in the original was a typo.)
In the second example,
“While a simple comparison of children in two-parent families and single-parent would undoubtedly show that children in two-parent families are doing better. However, it is wrong to infer from this fact that the children in single-parent families are doing poorly because their parents broke up,”
the first “sentence” is a Fragment and the “however is largely wasted:
“A simple comparison of children in two-parent families and single-parent would undoubtedly show that children in two-parent families are doing better. It is wrong, however, to infer from this fact that the children in single-parent families are doing poorly because their parents broke up.”

I’m in total agreement with your progressive views and wish only to give them a stronger thrust through common usage.

sH. S. Rockwood III, Ph.D., retired English Professor.


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written by PeonInChief, January 13, 2014 11:27
To H.S. Rockwood:

Getting rid of that ",however" separating two entirely independent sentences has become common in legal and social science writing. No matter how often you try to explain that it makes no sense at all, it seems to be here to stay. I have given up on that one, and am about to give up on the use of "impact" as a verb too. I don't critique the blog's usage, as Dr. Baker is whipping this stuff out at 6:00 AM or midnight.
Uh...staying in an abusive marriage is NOT the point...
written by David Helveticka, January 13, 2014 12:56
With over half of ALL marriages ending in divorce, it is ridiculous to assert that all of them are caused by abusive behavior by the man...and the fact is that divorce squanders resources spent in maintaining two households that otherwise would be devoted to the children. Single parents have a difficult time finding enough time and energy to parent their children.

Usually, I find your commentary very intelligent. But this is really a stupid argument that the breakdown of our cultural values does not have a harmful effect on our economic security.
Increasing "public resources" is no substitute for parents..., Low-rated comment [Show]
Response to David Helveticka
written by Oarboar, January 13, 2014 1:24
David Helveticka, where are you getting your statistics on the divorce rate? I suspect you're making the common mistake of comparing the number of marriages in a given year to the number of divorces in a given year, which is a remarkably lousy way to use statistics. If you really want to know the divorce rate, you'd have to take the number of a marriages in a given year and measure that cohort going forward. Even after 50 years, the data would still be incomplete.

What's going on here is that we're in the middle of a process where the role of men and women in the world is changing. Women no longer wish to just stay barefoot and in the kitchen, and that's a good thing. These changes has been going on since the Industrial Revolution, and our grandchildren's grandchildren will probably still be sorting it out. Anyone who thinks we can wave a magic wand and go back to the days of Ozzie and Harriet is delusional. It's not practical or desirable.

What we do need is for couples to put more thought and more work into making sure they're in a good relationship with the right partner before having children. Government can encourage that, but as Alex Bollinger pointed out, it can't mandate it.
Why so many 1-parent families?
written by Art Perlo, January 13, 2014 1:58
There are many reasons for 1-parent families. A major one must be lack of decent jobs, especially for young men, especially African American, especially with at most a HS ed, especially with a record. Low or no income doesn't stop young people from having kids, but is a huge barrier to marriage, and when married, a huge barrier to a stable marriage. Like many social problems, decent jobs are an important part of the solution.
Three-parent households would eliminate poverty
written by Nick Batzdorf, January 13, 2014 3:00
If single-parent households are the cause, the solution is obvious.
...
written by PeonInChief, January 13, 2014 3:35
Many years ago Barbara Ehrenreich did the math and discovered that, at the average wage of a male poverty wage earner, a woman with two children would need four of them to make a reasonable income.
David Helveticka: another myth
written by Bill B, January 14, 2014 7:59
The idea that half (or over half) of marriages end in divorce is another myth that just won't die, originating with statistical abuses in the 1970s. It would be slightly more accurate to say that 70% of first marriages succeed, but even that is an over-generalization:
http://psychcentral.com/lib/th...e/00011473
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written by Oarboar, January 15, 2014 11:33
Great catch, Bill B. I've bookmarked that for future reference.
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written by JQP, January 15, 2014 4:36
"Countries that have such supports do not see the same story in child outcomes as the United States."

The apples to oranges comparisons between the multiracial United States and (in this case, unnamed) homogeneous European countries. When those countries have a population that is 12.5% black and 2x% brown, their examples will be germane.
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written by JQP, January 15, 2014 4:41
Er, there should be a "are tiresome" at the end of that first sentence...
@David Helveticka
written by J, January 15, 2014 8:02
>With over half of ALL marriages ending in divorce, it is ridiculous to assert that all of them are caused by abusive behavior by the man

He didn't assert that. He said "abusive"; you said "man."

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Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.

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