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Home Publications Blogs CEPR Blog NYT’s Annie Lowrey Commits Rand-Paul Fallacy in Article on Marriage and Poverty

NYT’s Annie Lowrey Commits Rand-Paul Fallacy in Article on Marriage and Poverty

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Wednesday, 05 February 2014 12:27

Over 40 percent of impoverished parents of minor children are married. Thus, as I wrote last week, Rand Paul’s claim that “marriage with kids versus unmarried with kids is the difference between living in poverty and not” is clearly fallacious. While poverty rates are higher for never-married and previously married parents than for currently-married ones, the vast majority of parents are still married and the poverty rate for people in married-with-kid couples (10%) is far from zero. As a consequence, there is extensive married-with-kid poverty in the United States.

In an upcoming Sunday NYT magazine article, Annie Lowrey repeats the Rand-Paul Fallacy when she writes, as the first of her “deep thoughts this week” takeaway points: “if everyone married, few would be poor.” A more accurate statement here would be: “if everyone married, there would be lots more married people in poverty.”
 
Ultimately, Lowrey ends up in the right place—we need more good jobs for poorly compensated workers—so should progressives care that she starts by reaffirming the Rand-Paul fallacy? After all, maybe Lowrey is just following Matthew Ygleisias’ advice that liberals should “see the family stability angle as a way of getting social conservatives more invested in helping poor people.” I tend to agree with Ygleisias on this, but would say that doesn’t excuse affirming the Rand-Paul fallacy. In part, because a fallacy is a fallacy, but also because social conservatives may be even more invested in helping people in poverty in useful ways if they understand that they’re not all the Bad Single Mommies in Poverty that Charles Murray and others have been nattering on about for decades.
 

Technical Appendix

 Some more technical points about claims in the piece:
  1.  Lowrey says: “Economists have done studies showing that if you snapped your fingers and suddenly all the country’s poor, unmarried partners were hitched — including gay and lesbian couples legally precluded from marrying in most states — the poverty rate would drop.” I’m not aware of any of these studies, but the earnings of cohabiting couples do not magically change once they achieve legally wedded bliss, so their real poverty status does not change. One factor it can affect (both negatively and positively) is their tax treatment and eligibility for certain benefits, but I don’t think that is what Lowrey is thinking about.

  2. Lowry says: "Nobody doubts that where marriage is, poverty tends not to be; the statistics are stark. Almost no marriages in which both partners work full time fall below the poverty line; about one-third of households headed by a single mother are poor." But it also would be accurate to say almost no unmarried cohabiting couples in which both partners work full time fall below the poverty line. And comparing households in which both adults work full-time with single-mother ones generally (regardless of work status) needlessly overhypes the starkness of the differences.

  3. Lowrey says: “economist Raj Chetty … found that, in terms of income mobility, nothing matters more for a low-income child than the family structures she sees in her community ….” This strongly implies that Chetty’s study established a causal link (“nothing matters more”) between mobility and the family structures a child “sees in her community.” But in their study, Chetty and his colleagues clearly stated “our descriptive analysis does not identify the causal mechanism that determine upward mobility.” And it is very hard to for me to see how the share of single-parent families in a community directly affects the mobility of kids raised by married parents in that same community (which is what a causal reading of the correlation Chetty finds would imply, if I’m understanding his paper right). It seems much more likely that some other material factor (like the availability of good jobs) is affecting both family structure and mobility.

  4. University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen has a great post discussing the problems with Lowrey’s failure to address race. To that I’d add: 1) it’s worth noting that the poverty rate for people in married-with-kid Latino families is 21.5%, twice the poverty rate (9.4%) for white, non-Latino ones; 2) disability (both of parents and children) is another underappreciated factor when it comes to understanding the structures and economic stability of low-income families. One reason is that, as Brown sociologist Dennis Hogan has shown in his important book on the family consequences of disability, married couples caring for children with disabilities are more likely to divorce. 

  5. Lowrey quotes W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project: “Unless we improve the fortunes of poor working people, particularly poor working men, we aren’t going to see marriage coming back.” I mostly agree with sentiment here, but not his “particularly for men part.” As long as there is a gender wage gap and various other forms of gender inequality, the focus needs to be on both men and women.

  6. Finally, Lowrey says: “Bill Clinton’s welfare overhaul allowed states to spend federal funds on marriage promotion.” The 1996 law Lowrey refers to was crafted almost exclusively by Gingrich Republicans who controlled Congress (which isn’t to excuse Bill Clinton and many other Democrats for aiding and abetting them). And the marriage promotion provisions in the bill came from Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation.

Tags: disability | marriage | poverty | Race | Working-Class

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