Bryan Caplan  

Marsh vs. A Simple, Effective Way to Avoid Poverty

You Should Be Nodding Your Hea... Quotable...
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.

Marsh continues:
[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.

Marsh concludes:
[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 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.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (30 to date)
PrometheeFeu writes:

I find your argument mostly persuasive. But I would like to bring forward 3 points:

1) Some studies on the ground seem to show that information regarding birth-control is much less widespread than you or I might think at first blush. A lot of women either do not know about birth-control or more commonly do not know how to obtain or use it. Also, some disastrous education policies have led many people to be more generally poorly informed about the consequences of sexual activities.

2) There are many situations in which some women are pressured into sexual activity which is not euvoluntary as Don Boudreaux might say. That does not mean somebody needs to go to jail but it does mean that the woman's ability to make an informed decision is often constrained by a variety of social and cultural factors. In some such cases, I think it calls for a little more sympathy.

3) Evaluating the reliability of a potential spouse is a notoriously difficult thing. Again, for the same reason we might feel compassion for someone whose house was destroyed by a tornado despite having taken reasonable precautions, we might also feel compassion for someone who thought she was engaging in sexual relations with a responsible person who turned out to be a jerk despite appearing to be a reliable man.

rapscallion writes:

Most poor single mothers obviously prefer being poor single mothers to being non-poor non-mothers. If they don't care that much about being poor, I don't see why others should.

ThomasL writes:

Of course one might simply abstain until "finding and marrying a reliable" spouse.

Uncommon enough now to be sure, but foolproof.

caryatis writes:

The first commenter has it right: it is not that simple to determine whether your potential husband is reliable. Maybe he's reliable until the baby is born. Maybe he's reliable for 20 years and then leaves you. And it's hard to get child support out of poor men.

Don't blame women for not having perfect foreknowledge of their husband's future actions.

John Marsh writes:

Knowing full well that these things usually do not go very well, and so against my better judgement, I'll go ahead and respond here in the comments.

I must be lucky if this is the passage Bryan finds the most outrageous. Still, I don't think it--or the argument--is as outrageous as it might seem.

Bryan thinks single-motherhood is a choice, I think it is more or less a given. In other words, if, like me, you wanted to reduce levels of poverty in the United States, you could persuade more single mothers to marry the fathers of their children or never have children in the first place. I would probably support such efforts.

However, and this is the basis of my critique of Rector, I do not think you would have too much luck with that approach, either because you couldn't persuade people or, as someone above commented, perhaps this is out of their hands. Either way, in the end you would not reduce poverty all that much. So, you would be left saying, well, we tried, it is their choice to have children or not marry and thus fall into poverty. Let them be and let us wash our hands of it. Or you can say, well, we tried, but women still had children and still didn't marry, so they still live in poverty. We will just have to try something else.

I am of the try something else school. Bryan and probably most of his readers are not. That is a difference of politics, not an outrageous or equivocating argument.

Yancey Ward writes:

John Marsh,

What changed? Single motherhood is a growing phenomenon, and I think it important to ask why. My worry is this- by "trying something else" (and note that for 50 years, we were trying something different, too) we are going to only make single motherhood even more acceptable and financially possible. Is this a good idea?

Steve_0 writes:

I'm of the "diagram the agents, actors, domain, consequences, and benefits" school. Which is precisely what my students have been learning to do for the past month.

"Try something new" is great. But not at the expense of sneaking domain out the door under your hat. Your money. Your resources. Your education. Your child. Your potential spouse. Your followers and your sphere of influence. All great.

Going outside of your domain, and presuming your reasons for action are worth pointing guns at other people to force them to take action is the core example in "force negates reason".

If we're all just recommending various equally weighted alternatives in the air for assorted third parties to act on because of our expert genius plans, then what difference does this discussion really make?

I find Bryan's intent to actually find out what logically results in positive outcomes to be the most fruitful. I can't make people not act stupidly. I can help determine what actually results in positive outcomes. And I promise you I will spend the rest of my life fighting people who want to point guns in my face, or tell me what I should do in my own domain.

lemmy caution writes:

It is difficult for poor women to find a marriageable man. This book is good on the topic:

Steve Sailer writes:

Actually, the black birthrate has fallen sharply since the early 1990s. It's now not too far above the replacement rate. That's the kind of good news that you are not supposed to talk about, however.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Yancey Ward:

Why would it be better to make single-motherhood unacceptable and financially untenable?

James A Donald writes:
It is difficult for poor women to find a marriageable man
It is trivial for poor women to find a marriagiable man. What is hard is for poor women to find a man who is alpha enough for their tastes - a pimp and a thug, who is also marriageable.

In a society that allows women to act on their sexual instincts, we get the lek reproductive pattern, where all the women mate with five percent of the men, where one man in twenty fathers nineteen out of twenty children.

Monogamous and durable marriage is a creation of the partriarchy, which attempted to remake female nature so as to increase the resources applied to raising and educating children.

A lot of women will not consider marriageable men, unless their dad gives them a clip over the ear.

Yancey Ward writes:
Why would it be better to make single-motherhood unacceptable and financially untenable?

Because what we have done is the opposite for 50 years, and we are here today debating about what to do about all the poor single mothers living in poverty.

Jane G writes:

John Marsh - A decrease in the poverty rate from 14.3 to 14.0 is a 2.1% change, not a "whopping .3%"

We really are a math-challenged nation.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Yancey Ward:

Because what we have done is the opposite for 50 years, and we are here today debating about what to do about all the poor single mothers living in poverty.

OK, so you seem to believe there is a problem with the "poor" part. If that is the case, I don't see how making single mothers worst off will be an improvement. It seems the best option would be to educate people to understand that single-motherhood often leads to poverty and see what can be done about helping those single mothers who are poor.

Clay writes:

John Marsh's response was perfect.

Yancey Ward writes:
It seems the best option would be to educate people to understand that single-motherhood often leads to poverty and see what can be done about helping those single mothers who are poor.

But would we then be lying? Let's say we agreed as a society to simply give every single mother a guaranteed income of 120% of the poverty level. What might happen, even if you started trying to educate people that single motherhood led to poverty?

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Yancey Ward:

Well then single-motherhood would no longer result in poverty and so the problem you were worried about would be solved. No need to for education on the matter anymore.

Bob Murphy writes:

This is just an issue for the moms, right? Because parental choices don't affect how kids turn out? (I'm not being a wiseguy. I seriously can't understand Bryan's diverse posts on kids.)

8 writes:

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Luke writes:

And I guess the simple, effective solution to the problem of malnutrition is "Simply eat until you no longer feel hungry" ?

I usually appreciate how thoughtful your posts are, but this really comes across as glib.

Shangwen writes:

I too first found the post excessively glib, but then remembered something.

I once served on the board of directors for a large charity that provided social services to kids from poor families, mostly adolescent girls. They had various intervention programs, but I never really understood what the goals were or what effect they were known to have. But they collected a lot of donations. Here's what I experienced:

- The outcomes were terrible. Despite years of counseling, education, social experiments, etc., most girls repeated their mothers' lifestyle and dependency.

- When I addressed the outcomes, program directors said they were underfunded.

- When I pointed out that well-funded programs had the same results, they retreated to the "root causes" hand-waving: racism, sexism, inequality, etc. Which inadvertently raises the question of why one should try at all.

At first I thought the charity was staffed by idiots and charlatans. Then I understood that the effort of trying to help was more prized than the outcome. They assumed full responsibility for adopting a specific moral stance (e.g., "we help the ones no one else wants to help"), but no responsibility for the result. Never mind the fact that you can't run a business that way; you can't even drive to the corner store with that thinking.

I do like John Marsh's reply in this thread, but I am not of the school of trying one more thing, because of my experience and not my politics. This is an area where empirical knowledge tells us things that our biases rebel against.

Yancey Ward writes:
Well then single-motherhood would no longer result in poverty and so the problem you were worried about would be solved. No need to for education on the matter anymore.

And if single motherhood reached levels of 70-90% afterwards? My original point was that we have continuously tried, since the 60s, to alleviate poverty of such groups, but the problems grow in the meantime. I think this is no coincidence, nor do I think the utopian ideal you outlined would actually ensue. It is going to matter greatly how we address it. My concern extends both to the present poor, and those who will exist in the future, and I see no reason to necessarily favor one over the other.

Luke writes:


I would definitely agree that misguided social experiments which take no responsibility for outcomes are a bad idea. And single motherhood generally is a choice. Or at least the result of a number of choices. But that's kind of the point, because the sum of all those choices is more complex than the body of Bryan's post seems to suggest. I do appreciate his allusion to some of that complexity in the postscript, because children are a blessing even when they arrive at financially disadvantageous times.

"Let's do something just to show we care" is clearly a bad approach. But so is "just stop caring".

Caleb writes:

@ Luke
“And I guess the simple, effective solution to the problem of malnutrition is "Simply eat until you no longer feel hungry" ?”
It is pretty glib, but I think your statement is a more valid illustration than you think. There was a survey a while ago studying the food purchasing habits of bottom-level poverty folks around the world. The results were interesting: When they gained even a modicum of purchasing power, even the poorest people would immediately trade low-cost, high nutritional value foods for more expensive sugars, processed fats, and alcohol. Even when this trade off would push them back below the malnutrition level. Basically, as long as they aren’t physically dying, people show a broad preference for more expensive, less nutritional, but better tasting food than cheap, nutritional, but bland food.
There is also the point made recently in an article by either the WaPo or NYT (can’t remember which): the “fact” that unhealthy processed food is cheaper than healthy food is pure hot air. Buying groceries and cooking is less expensive than eating out (even at McD’s), and buying rice, beans, and (non-organic) veggies costs just as much per calorie (or less) as a Hungry Man or hot dogs. People can fulfill their nutritional requirements for very little money. Only the bottom of the most impoverished populations truly lacks the ability to feed themselves.
The problem, of course, is that eating the type of food that this diet requires is not pleasant. It’s bland, takes time to prepare, and doesn’t give you the dopamine rush of sugar or fats. The benefits of not doing so (improved health, saved money) are not immediately apparent. But the benefits of a sugar or alcohol high are.
I see a pretty good parallel with Brian’s point. Abstinence sucks. Obtaining and using birth control is inconvenient. Resisting the cultural, social, and psychological pressures of your environment is hard, especially if the benefits of doing so are not immanently forthcoming.
In both these situations, there are very simple methods poor people can adopt to measurably improve their circumstances. I don’t deny that the countervailing pressures I mentioned don’t make these methods easy-I acknowledge they exist. But I don’t acknowledge them as legitimate.

Luke writes:

@ Caleb

Those are some very interesting studies. And you make a really good argument. I have to agree that a solution can be "simple" without being "easy".

Huxley writes:

James A. Donald clearly has it right. Women have children without husbands because they now can due to social changes which allow them to work or receive welfare and the lessening of social stigma to illegitimacy. They don't have to put up with men to have children the way past generations did. I personally know several women in their late 30s/early 40s who had illegitmate children via sperm donors. This would have been unthinkable to their grandmothers who would have been shunned by society.

joeftansey writes:

Poor women are still in the best position to solve the problem. It doesn't matter how "hard" you think it is to be proactive and use birth control, because influencing the state and procuring benevolent and cost-effective intervention is literally impossible.

deep6 writes:

Fact: most women regularly use some form of birth control.

Fact: Women's lives are unique, and each has her own responsibilities, interests, health considerations and goals.

Expository stereotyping of poor women, like the kind I've read here, is so outrageously classist and sexist it makes the Internets cry.

Children are NOT always a blessing, and motherhood is NOT always a good thing. Such a pollyanna view of the realities of lives that women lead -- yes, poor WORKING women, too -- suggests some commenters here don't understand what a serious commitment and sacrifice childrearing is, not to mention the physical limitations and effects of carrying a pregnancy to term.

Half of all unintended pregnancies are aborted, and as abortion rates have risen among poor women while they've declined among middle-class and wealthy women, it's clear most poor women are intelligent and hardworking enough to realize that a child will only harm their efforts to better their station and wait to have children until they can better handle the responsibility. Sadly, many women still consider motherhood the "default." If they get pregnant (unintentionally), everything else ends, and motherhood is an expectation, not a choice.

And ThomasL -- if you really think women should wait until they're married to have sex, please run back to your Promise Keepers meeting. Those of us who are not interested in remaining virgins until we're so fortunate as to be bestowed a marriage proposal actually care about having a good, active sex life.

Ohio Libertarian writes:

As the author rightly notes, personal choice is at the crux of the motherhood decision.

Various government programs at both the state and Federal levels reduce the personal costs of childbearing decisions. As the old economics axiom goes, what you subsidize, you get more of.

Until we realize and accept that these well meant programs simply create a permanent underclass of government-dependant citizens, we will perpetuate a level of poverty and suffering in this country beyond what a free society would create on its own.

Go3 writes:

Have to go with Ohio Libertarian, choice is the bottom line. I personally know a woman that had a child at 18, unmarried and with zero participation from the father. Fast forward 5 years, and she got pregnant again by the same man. In the mean time, she's received 5 years worth of welfare, housing, child care vouchers, free health care and food stamps from the states of North Carolina and Massachusetts.

It's a very fine line when it comes to govt intervention like this. It obviously helps in the immediate, but is it truly helping this woman and her children in the long term when the burden of feeding, providing a home and health care falls to tax payers and not the individual requiring these things?

Another example: the numbers of children receiving free &/or reduced breakfast and lunch at schools. This number has stayed consistent or gone up almost across the board. Once you take away the responsibility of parents to provide food for their children, you pretty much take it away permanently. Another means of creating dependence on the govt.

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