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Study: Poverty not main cause of out of wedlock births7 min read

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Freakanomics radio just published a fascinating interview entitled The Fracking Boom, a Baby Boom, and the Retreat From Marriage. Melissa Kearney, professor of economics at the University of Maryland, has been concerned about the relationship between the breakdown of the family and outcomes for children.

She is not a social conservative and was surprised by her findings. Here are some surprising points from her research.

1. Out of wedlock births are out of control

  • 5% – the percent of births in the U.S. to unmarried mothers in 1960
  • 40% – the percent of births in the U.S. to unmarried mothers in 2014
  • 63% – the percent of births to women under the age of 25 outside of marriage.
  • 71% – the percent of births to African-American mothers outside of marriage.

2. Married parents are unquestionably better for children than cohabitation or single parenthood

KEARNEY: I am perfectly comfortable saying that it looks like being born to two, or living with two married parents is beneficial for kids. I know a lot of academics, they don’t want to say that, right? Because it sounds really socially conservative and preachy. But what’s really interesting is if you think of how higher-educated, higher-income parents are behaving, they are still almost entirely having children inside of marriage. Both parents are investing an extraordinary amount of financial resources, time and energy into their kids. In some sense, it’s a luxury to be able to say, “I don’t want to make social commentary like that.” Well, that’s because the kids of higher-educated, higher-income parents — they’re doing extremely well. But the kids who are being born to less-educated single moms, they are falling farther and farther behind.

To not be honest about that — I don’t think that’s doing anybody any favors, even if it’s politically more comfortable.

And you might think a cohabiting couple and a married couple are pretty the same when it comes to their children’s outcomes. But there you’d be wrong.


Wendy MANNING (sociologist and demographer at Bowling Green State University): When we consider the family structure at birth — whether it’s cohabiting or married — we see more negative outcomes for children who are born to cohabiting than married parents.

MANNING: That’s true when you look at physical health, psychosocial outcomes or cognitive indicators. If your parents get married, then you are going to fare better than if you’re a child who’s raised by cohabiting parents who don’t get married. But it doesn’t seem as if cohabiting parents who eventually marry really achieve the same level of health as children with stably married parents. It doesn’t seem as if they’re able to catch up in the same way.

3. An increase in good jobs increased pregnancies in both married and unmarried couples, but no rise in marriage.

DUBNER: The underlying idea is that one reason fewer mothers have been getting married over the past few decades is because fewer men have good economic prospects and therefore if there is a job boom or a wage boom, that would theoretically increase the supply of men with better economic prospects. Yes? That’s the theory that you wanted to test?

KEARNEY: That was the hypothesis. That’s right.

DUBNER: Okay. And how’d that work out? What did you actually learn from your data?

KEARNEY: My speculation going in was that an increase in the economic opportunities for men would lead to a reduction in nonmarital childbearing. In fact, the data showed the opposite. Or let’s say it didn’t support that. The data do show that in response to these increased economic activity and earnings potential we do see an increase in births.

But interestingly there’s the same response among married births and nonmarried births and no increase in marriage. This does not offer support for what I’ll call a ‘reverse marriageable men’ story, where, if we see more marriageable men, we’ll see an increase in marriage. The data do not support that.

4. What poor communities need is a value and culture change, not merely an economic one

KEARNEY: As an economist when I’ve been asked, in policy contexts in the past few years, “What would it take to halt the retreat of marriage among less-educated populations?” My answer’s always been, “We need to see the economic situation of less educated men improve.”

Now when I’m asked, “What’s going to help?” Now I have no idea. If it’s not just about economics, but if it’s about quote-unquote ‘culture’ or ‘social norms,’ that’s a lot harder to deal with. I have no idea how to change social or cultural norms. Whereas if you told me it was about economics, I could think of certain policy levers to pull.

5. Should we change the tax code to reward marriage? Yes and No

DUBNER: Should we be thinking about just paying people to get married and penalizing them if they either don’t stay or have kids out of marriage?

KEARNEY: Most of us would be very hesitant to offer financial incentives, specifically, to get people to marry or stay married because we do realize how complicated a decision that is. But I will point out that all of our tax and transfer programs actually explicitly financially penalize marriage. At the very least, we could make our tax and transfer system marriage-neutral. I’m not saying that would solve it, but certainly, we’ve set up our system to have the wrong incentives when it comes to marriage.

6. What about supporting non-profits that teach marriage, relationship, and communication skills? We tried that with poor results.

There have been government programs to teach couples good relationship skills. Like the Healthy Marriage Initiative, backed by then-President George W. Bush.

George W. BUSH in a clip from C-SPAN 2: Not every child has two devoted parents at home. I understand that. And not every marriage can or should be saved. But the evidence shows that strong marriages are good for children.

Alas, an assessment of this project by four researchers — including the Bowling Green sociologist Wendy Manning — found that some $600 million worth of government spending didn’t seem to have many benefits.

7. Radical Education: MTV’s 16 and Pregnant worked

The places where more kids were watching MTV, this experiment comes on. You could think of it that way. All of a sudden, now they’re watching a show that makes teen motherhood look really hard. You see fewer teen births in that place nine months after the show came on the air. Teen childbearing has been falling steadily at like 2.5 percent a year.

Then around the time that that show came on the air you saw a large drop in the sense that it declined 7.5 percent and has stayed at that rate.

CONCLUSION: Poverty is primarily about values, not economics

Looks like the hugely politically incorrect 1964 Moynihan report was correct:

“The fundamental problem … is that of family structure. The evidence — not final, but powerfully persuasive — is that the Negro family in urban ghettos is crumbling. … So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.”

There is much more in the interview, but this is my summary.