Marsh vs. A Simple, Effective Way to Avoid Poverty
By Bryan Caplan
I genuinely like John Marsh’s Class Dismissed. But now it’s time to attack the most outrageous passage in the entire book. Here’s Marsh’s take on the view that “increased poverty rates owe to an increase in single-parent homes”:
Nearly two-thirds of poor children, as Rector observes, reside in such homes. It is also the case that, as he calculates, “if poor mothers married the fathers of their children nearly three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty.” This is a happy thought, but so is the one wherein poor mothers win the lottery.
It’s hard to imagine a worse comparison. In a world of cheap, reliable contraception, any woman can easily avoid single motherhood with near-certainty. Simply use birth control until you find and marry a reliable man. Avoiding single motherhood, to be blunt, is a choice. Winning the lottery, on the other hand, is an extremely low-probability event based almost entirely on luck.
[N]o one, not even Rector, thinks that all poor mothers will marry – or even should marry – the fathers of their children.
There’s a key equivocation here. Given that you are already a single mother, marrying the father of your children may indeed be impossible or unwise. Rector isn’t pointing out a way for existing single mothers to escape from poverty. He’s pointing out a way that single mothers could have avoided poverty in the first place.* And more constructively, Rector’s pointing out a simple, effective way for childless women to not become poor.
Assuming that anyone, let alone the federal government, could successfully promote marriage, what would constitute success in such an undertaking? A 10 percent increase in the marriage rate of poor single mothers, as Rector speculates?… That would reduce the poverty rate in the United States from 14.3 to 14.0, a whopping .3 percent.
I have to be difficult here. With a little foresight, poor single mothers could have increased their marriage rate to near-100%. It’s not rocket science: To repeat, simply use birth control until you find and marry a reliable man. My big question for Marsh: Why don’t women at risk of becoming poor single mothers count as “anyone” who “could successfully promote marriage”? They, not the federal government, should be at the top of your list of actors able to make a difference.
[F]ocusing on these details as the causes or solutions to poverty is a dead end – except of course for those who wish to persuade themselves and others that poverty is not a problem and not something that deserves our attention or resources. In which case, it gets them exactly where they’re going.
Dead end? If you really care about poverty, you should be overjoyed to learn that people can massively reduce poverty by slightly changing their behavior. Of course, this realization will also reduce our sympathy for people who refuse to change their behavior. And it should.
P.S. For the record, I think single motherhood is underrated. Bringing life into the world is a great good, and nothing to regret. But it’s even better to plan ahead to give your kids a stable two-parent family – and irresponsible to have kids you can’t afford to support.
* Rector’s advice for unmarried women might be abstinence rather than birth control. If so, I’d say that he’s making his argument weaker than it could be. Abstaining from sex until marriage is a lot more painful than using birth control until marriage.