Combating Poverty: Understanding New Challenges for Families
United States Senate Committee on Finance: Testimony by Ron Haskins June 5, 2012
In 2009, the poverty rate for children in married-couple families was 11.0 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate for children in female-headed families was 44.3 percent.  The difference between these two poverty rates is a specter haunting American social policy because the percentage of American children who live in female-headed families has been increasing relentlessly for over five decades. In 1950, 6.3 percent of families with children were headed by a single mother. By 2010, 23.9 percent of families with children had single-mother heads.  That a higher and higher fraction of children live in the family type in which they are about four times as likely to be poor exerts strong upward pressure on the poverty rate. One way to think of the shift to female-headed families is that even if government policy were successful in moving people out of poverty, the large changes in family composition serve to offset at least part of the progress that otherwise would be made. In fact, a Brookings analysis shows that if we had the marriage rate we had in 1970, the poverty rate would fall by more than 25 percent. 
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Reducing Nonmarital Births. One of the engines driving poverty in the U.S. is the fragmentation of families. Around a quarter of children are living in female-headed families at any given moment and about half experience at least some time during their childhood in a female-headed family. When children live in female-headed families, they are at least four times as likely to be poor as when they live in a married-couple family.  But poverty is not the only risk faced by these children. Since Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur published Growing up with a Single Parent in 1994,  social science research has repeatedly shown that children reared in female-headed families are more likely to fail in school, more likely to be arrested, more likely to get pregnant as teens, more likely to have mental health problems and to commit suicide, more likely to get a divorce when they grow up, and more likely to experience other negative outcomes.  In addition, as Kathy Edin has shown, these parents tend to separate within a few years, whereupon both the mother and father usually go on to form new relationships. Thus, their children experience a series of changes in household composition as their mothers form new cohabiting relationships.  The mother might even have a baby with one or more of these new men, creating a household with complex and often difficult relationships among the adults and usually making it hard for the children to establish a close relationship with their fathers.  The point is that life in female-headed families imposes both a high likelihood of poverty and of household instability that can produce negative impacts on child development.  If the share of children born into and living in married-couple families could be increased, poverty and childhood education, health, and mental health problems would decline, increasing the human capital of the nation’s children and having a long-term impact on the nation’s poverty rate. 
Several programs have proven successful in reducing teen pregnancy.  In part because of the prevalence of these programs, the U.S. teen birthrate has declined in all but three years since 1991.  It is difficult, however, to be too optimistic about the declining teen birthrate because as the teen birthrate has declined, the nonmarital birthrate for young women in the twenties and early thirties has increased more than enough to offset the decline in the teen rate. 
Even so, investments in programs aimed at reducing nonmarital births have been shown not only to actually reduce such births among women in their 20s and 30s, but to save government money.  The programs are a mass media campaign that encourages men to use condoms, a program for teens that both encourages abstinence and instructs on the proper use of contraceptives, and expansion of family planning services provided by Medicaid, mostly birth control for low-income females. Similarly, the Obama administration has initiated a number of new evidence-based initiatives that could reduce the number of nonmarital births even more. Additional investments in these programs would reduce the number of nonmarital births and in doing so reduce the nation’s poverty rate. but with 72 percent of black babies, 53 percent of Hispanic babies, and over 40 percent of all babies born outside marriage, there is a long way to go.  The nonmarital birth machine that expands poverty and produces children with less human capital than their peers being reared in married-couple families is disrupting and will continue to disrupt the nation’s drive to curb poverty.
 U.S. Census Bureau, Detailed Poverty Tables, “POV03: People in Families with Related Children Under 18 by Family Structure, Age, and Sex, Iterated by Income-to-Poverty Ratio and Race: 2009” (http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032010/pov/new03_100_01.htm).
 U.S. Census Bureau, Families and Living Arrangements, “Table FM-1: Families by Presence of Own Children Under 18: 1950 to Present” (http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam.html).
 Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2009).
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 Census Bureau, Families, “Table C2: Household Relationship and Living Arrangements of Children Under 18 Years, by Age and Sex: 2010,” available athttp://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html;” Katherine Magnuson and Lawrence M. Berger, “Family Structure States and Transitions: Associations with Children’s Well-Being During Middle Childhood,” Journal of Family and Marriage 71, no. 3 (2000): 575-591.
 Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps (Cambridge: Harvard, 1994).
 Paul R. Amato, “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,” The Future of Children 15, no. 2 (2005): 75-96; Mitch Pearlstein, Shortchanging Student Achievement: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation (Forthcoming); Haskins and Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society, Chapter 10.
 Reference Edin study of transitions in Fragile Families study
 Kathy Edin, personal communication, April 28, 2011; seehttps://crcw.princeton.edu%2fworkingpapers%2fWP11-10-FF.pdf.
 Sara McLanahan and others, “Strengthening Fragile Families,” Future of Children Policy Brief, Princeton-Brookings, Fall 2010.
 Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill, “For Richer or Poorer: Marriage as an Antipoverty Strategy,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 21, no. 4 (2002): 587-599; Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, “Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare,” Welfare Reform and Beyond Brief 28, The Brookings Institution (September 2003).
 Douglas Kirby, Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programsto Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Washington DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2007).
 The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, “National Birth Rates for Teens, aged 15-19,” (Accessed May 19, 2011); available athttp://www.thenationalcampaign.org/national-data/NBR-teens-15-19.aspx.
 Stephanie J. Ventura, “Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States,” National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief, No. 18, May 2009.
 Adam Thomas, "Three Strategies to Prevent Unintended Pregnancy,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 31, No. 2 (2012).
 Brady Hamilton, Joyce Martin, and Stephanie Ventura, “Table 1: Total Births and birth, fertility, and total fertility rates and nonmarital births, by race and Hispanic origin of mother: United States, final 2008 and preliminary 2009,” from National Vital Statistics Reports: Births: Preliminary Data for 2009 59, no. 3 (2010); available athttp://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/nvsr.htm.