Arnold Kling

Poverty and Illegitimacy

Arnold Kling, Great Questions of Economics
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Contrary to Paul Krugman's assertions (see below), America is not polarized over the issue of tax cuts. America is much more polarized over single motherhood. The way I see it,

People who see single moms as victims vote Democratic, and people who see single moms as villains vote Republican

James Q. Wilson, in Why We Don't Marry, is as Republican as you can get. He starts with this observation.

Former Clinton advisor William Galston sums up the matter this way: you need only do three things in this country to avoid poverty--finish high school, marry before having a child, and marry after the age of 20. Only 8 percent of the families who do this are poor; 79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor.

It is interesting to juxtapose Wilson's conservatism with that of W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, who wrote Myths of Rich and Poor. They argue that the incidence of poverty is overstated, in part because the income distribution in the United States is highly fluid. On p. 73, they report that

Only 5 percent of those in the bottom fifth in 1975 were still there in 1991.

If Wilson is right that poverty is caused by teenage motherhood, and Cox and Alm are right that most poverty disappears over time, does that mean that teenage motherhood is reversible? I'm confused.

One cynical thought is that perhaps divorce and unwed motherhood are what economists call "luxury goods." One hundred years ago, only rich people could afford them, but now most people can. That does not mean that everyone has a taste for luxury. I am ok with my old-fashioned marriage, just as I am ok driving my sedan with 100,000 miles on it. Unwed motherhood, like a brand new Sport-utility vehicle, is expensive. I know people whose income is in the poverty bracket driving brand new SUV's, but I am not moved to write a Wilsonian diatribe about that.

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