The Child Poverty Rate For Married Families Is Extremely High

Pushing her new reduce-child-poverty-with-birth-control gospel, Isabell Sawhill had this to say at Education Next:

The effects on children of the increase in single parents is no longer much debated. They do less well in school, are less likely to graduate, and are more likely to be involved in crime, teen pregnancy, and other behaviors that make it harder to succeed in life. Not every child raised by a single parent will suffer from the experience, but, on average, a lone parent has fewer resources—both time and money—with which to raise a child. Poverty rates for single-parent families are five times those for married-parent families. The growth of such families since 1970 has increased the overall child poverty rate by about 5 percentage points (from 20 to 25 percent).

This passage reminded me of a comparativist point I've been meaning to make about single motherhood and poverty for some time.

As I've pointed out previously, the countries with the lowest rates of child poverty (i.e. the Nordics) do not have especially low rates of single motherhood. The way they achieve low child poverty is through extensive family benefits, not by having a ton of married-parent families. From this I conclude that the single mother obsession in the US is misplaced, at least as far as child poverty goes. If we want lower child poverty, we can easily get there by adopting social democratic institutions.

One way to see this is by comparing a few illuminating ratios. Consider, first, the ratio Sawhill fixates on: the child poverty rates of single mother families versus the child poverty rate of married-parent families. In the following graph, I've documented this ratio for the US, Finland, Norway, and Sweden:

As you can see, children in single mother families are much more likely to be in poverty than children in married families in all four countries. In the US, in this 2000 LIS data set, the children in single mother families were 4x as likely to be in poverty. In Sweden, the figure was nearly 6x.

Why, you may wonder, is this single-to-married ratio actually higher in the welfare-happy Nordics than the stingy US? The answer is that the married-couple child poverty rate in the US is also extremely high. This can be seen in the following graph:

US children in married-couple families are 7.3x as likely to be in poverty as Finnish children in married-couple families. For Sweden, the ratio is 6x. Since US married-couple child poverty is so high, that makes the denominator in the first graph very high, which is why the ratio is so low.

Lastly, let's look at single-mother poverty ratios compared across countries:

What you see is US children in single-mother families are 6.2x as likely to be in poverty as Finnish children in single-mother families. In Sweden, the ratio is 4.1x. So, the US child poverty premium relative to the Nordics is actually higher in married families than in single mother families.

As this final graph shows, what's going on in the Nordics is not special family composition nor heavy benefits specifically for single mothers. Instead, it is across-the-board family benefits that drive child poverty down for all types of families (this is especially apparent when you compare market income poverty and disposable income poverty, which you can see here).

Amusingly, Nordic benefits are so successful that Nordic children in single-mother families actually have lower poverty rates than American children in married-couple families.

If your goal is actually to cut child poverty levels as much as possible, then broad-based family benefits are the proven solution. In the US, that would mean converting our ridiculous child tax code benefits into a universal per-child cash benefit, providing paid family leave for newborns, and providing child care benefits. If you want to take it one step further than that, you'd also include robust income supplements, like Finland's General Housing Allowance, which is a deep cover Negative Income Tax.

If, on the other hand, your goal is to deflect from our economic institutional failures by finding higher poverty populations to blame, then keep on beating the single mother drum.