Sunday, February 2, 2014

Some musings on unwed parents and poverty

My dad sent me an article about inequality a few days ago. The two points of the article were:

  1. that the minimum wage is not well targeted at reducing poverty
  2. that a large factor in poverty is family structure

The article cited the figure that 72% of black kids today are born to unmarried parents, up from 24% in 1965. Also, the poverty rate for children of single mothers is drastically higher than for married couples. So my dad and I were coming up with potential hypotheses for why this might be. Of interest is a Brookings Institute report with some numbers and a hypothesis that some of the change over the past half century might be because of a decrease in the number of shotgun weddings (a wedding arranged to avoid embarrassment due to an unplanned pregnancy).

We were talking about getting data on shotgun marriages (indented regions are written by my dad):

I think it would be hard to get data on marriages after pregnancy. I doubt the birth records would indicate how long the parents had been married.

Well, all you would need is the ability to link up birth certificates to marriage certificates. You would find a birth certificate, look at the mother, and see if she has a marriage certificate older or younger than 9 months. I don't know anything about the practical difficulties of obtaining such a database.

Even if you knew they had married after pregancy, how would you exclude pregnancy in anticipation of marriage. "We were getting married anyway, so we I got pregnant, we just started our family"

With that data alone, you couldn't. You could make a pool of "shotgun wedding candidates," i.e. people who got married close to or after pregnancy and then interview a random sample about whether they considered their marriage "shotgun" or not. You could then extrapolate to the broader population. For fun, you could measure some other variables so that your extrapolation was more accurate.

Just collecting that data alone would be an interesting project in and of itself, without any accompanying policy analysis or anything.

I would have thought that blacks, as more churched than whites, would have had a higher rate of shotgun weddings, but I have no data and that would not support the theory.

It seems reasonable on its face. If so, then the decline of shotgun weddings might have a disproportionate impact on blacks in terms of unwed births if indeed shotgun weddings were a significant force against unwed births. Again, without any data, it is just wild speculation.

I come back to thinking about it as rational people responding rationally to the options and incentives they face. Lecturing people about the value of marriage, while incenting them to have out of wedlock kids is self defeating.

Well, it depends on how strongly they and their peers buy into the lecturing. Social/peer pressure is clearly a powerful force, and I don't think it is unreasonable to expect that an increase in the stigma against unwed births could offset monetary incentives for single motherhood.

An interesting question is whether the social stigma itself is altered by the monetary incentives. This would probably take effect over time, as the introduction of monetary incentives drives more people to single motherhood, despite facing a stigma. Say you have three time periods: t=0, t=1, and t=2. At t=0, there is no governmental reward for having a child out of wedlock. There is a significant stigma against single motherhood and only a small fraction of women choose to have unwed births.

At t=1, monetary benefits are introduced, but the stigma is unchanged. The balance of monetary benefit versus social cost is tipped for some fraction of women and they choose to become single mothers. At the end of t=1, the stigma against single motherhood is weakened since it is difficult to maintain a social stigma against a large fraction of a population.

At t=2, the monetary benefits are the same, but the stigma is lowered, so more women decide to become single mothers, further reducing the stigma.

If you could somehow revive the stigma at t=3, you could potentially lower the single motherhood rate by making the social-cost/monetary-benefit calculation unattractive for the marginal woman. The difficulty is that it would be extremely hard to get people to buy into the idea that single motherhood is an unspeakable horror when 73% of the children in the community are born to unwed mothers. It's just too normal to be taboo.

I have to assume that people have out of weklock kids because it makes sense for them to do that. It would not make sense to you and Sarah, but you guys face different incentives and options.

I haven't looked at the specifics, but depending on the level of government subsidies and one's earning potential, it may literally pay to have additional kids. That's a scary thought, since, if true, the government is paying mothers to birth children into poverty.

Anecdote, I know, but I read an article a while ago about a researcher at Penn who was studying this issue. She pointed out the windw of her office and noted that the Penn campus was filled with sexually active young women, but they were not having babies. They had a lot to lose by interferring with their studies and job prospects, so they availed themselves of birth control and abortion. Impoverished high school dropouts with no further educational expectations and terrible job prospects may not see themselves as having anything at all to lose by starting families. They do not expect to be financialy secure in a few years, or ever. They may have as much interest in having children as do the Penn students. Should they put those plans on hold forever? Until they have good jobs? They don't expect ever to have good jobs, and they are probably right.

I think that part of the issue is that having a kid when you are young reduces your chances of getting a good job, so it is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Meanwhile, they see the option to live a life pretty much like the one they lived growing up. Not great, but... life.

Plus, depending on the level of government benefits, they might even come out ahead financially. Or, at the least, not very much behind.