Bryan Caplan  

Single Motherhood and Poverty: A Few More Replies

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When to Wash Your Hands... From the Vault: My Response to...
Lots of good comments on my critique of Marsh.  Some quick replies:

PrometheeFeu:
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.
I'm extremely skeptical about this.  But even if you're right, what's the minimally prudent response to ignorance about birth control?  Delay sex until you acquire some more information!
[F]or 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.
There's no certainty.  But there are plenty of excellent predictors of reliability: Age, steady job, family, friends, church attendance, etc.  And simply delaying pregnancy until marriage sharply reduces the danger of a mistake, because the father is legally on the hook for child support.

caryatis elaborates:
[I]t 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.
I'm not insisting on perfect foreknowledge, just common sense.  If you insist on marriage prior to pregnancy, you screen out an awful lot of unreliable men.  And there are many other excellent ways to filter out cads: Lengthen the courtship, prefer older men, wait for your man to get a steady job, avoid men with questionable family and friends, etc.  Even if the marriage eventually ends in divorce, you've still greatly mitigated the financial harm to yourself, your kids, and taxpayers.

Bob Murphy:
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.)
I've said it before, Bob, and I'll say it again: Parents have clear short-run effects on their kids, but little long-run effect.  If you're raised by a single mom, this is likely to cause you to be a poor child.  It is not likely to cause you to grow up to be a poor adult or an absent parent.  Then why do income and family structure run in families?  For the most part, because of genetics.  Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids has plenty of references - see pp.56-8 and 67-71.

Luke:

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.

If a person had cheap, healthy food right in front of him, "Simply eat until you no longer feel hungry" would indeed be a simple, effective solution to the problem of malnutrition.  "Simply use birth control until you find and marry a reliable man" is not glib because:

a. Birth control is cheap and easy to obtain.

b. Sex with birth control, unlike abstinence, does not lead to chronic burning lust.

c. Potentially poor women who delay child-bearing have a high chance of finding a reliable man before becoming infertile.



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COMMENTS (32 to date)
Seth writes:

We let folks off too easy. The 'free birth control' movement never made much sense to me. Effective birth control costs about as much as a soda.

John Jenkins writes:

"And simply delaying pregnancy until marriage sharply reduces the danger of a mistake, because the father is legally on the hook for child support."

Irrespective of marital status, the real father is legally on the hook for child support. All marriage does is create a presumption that the children born during wedlock are children of the couple, which presumption can be rebutted.

nazgulnarsil writes:

We are subsidizing caddish men by insulating women from the results of having children with them.

Rohan writes:

Wouldn't a better line of attack be "why don't more women use birth control?"

To me, your arguments seem pretty obvious. So if women are not using birth control, maybe there's an external reason they are not.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Poor single women who have children are invariably mothers by choice. It's a myth that they get pregnant out of birth control ignorance. I don't have the link ready, but there have been several studies on this.

soucreamus writes:

The problem is one of time inconsistent preferences. Most people who become single mothers do so when they are young and their brains are not fully developed. They then have to live the rest of their lives with their decision. Most of us do stupid things when we are young, not everyone has their lives so utterly changed by the stupid things.

Brian writes:

If we accept that society should "wash its hands" of most poor single mothers, what says you about their children? Furthermore, suppose we accept the argument that education isn't the answer. Is there a way for society to aid the children of poor single mothers, while still effectively washing its hands of the mothers themselves? My instinct is that most any attempt to assist the children will indirectly assist the parent as well. If this is the case, is "tough luck kids" the appropriate response?

Matt writes:

To me this is sort of like smoking. People know it causes cancer. You can't make the information any more clear. I've known quite a few people (including poor rural folk) who smoke and none of them have any delusions about the risk.

I personally find it baffling (and almost offensive) that people don't respect poor stupid people's decisions. They are not your children or your pets. They are not helpless! As you so eloquently point out, at-risk moms are clearly the ones with the most control over the situation.

Steve Sailer writes:

The African-American teen birthrate is down substantially versus the early 1990s. The Depo-Provera shot probably has something to do with this. Black women seem to want to have fewer but better children. You don't hear about these positive developments much because of fears of being accused of racism.

The more depressing case is Haiti, which is in a quasi-Malthusian situation. There are 10,000 foreign NGOs providing charity on the island, but it's almost impossible to find one that mentions offering Depo-Provera shots. Perhaps they do surreptitiously but don't put it on their websites to avoid worrying donors about being accused of racism. In all the writings about Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, there was very little emphasizing the need to reduce the birthrate, presumably because that's racist!

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Bryan:

Thanks for replying.

"I'm extremely skeptical about this. But even if you're right, what's the minimally prudent response to ignorance about birth control? Delay sex until you acquire some more information!"

That's only if you realize that you have inadequate information as opposed to thinking you have all the information that exists. (Or at least most of it) If you believe that birth control is simply not available for you, (overly expensive for instance) there is no reason for you to explore the matter further.

"There's no certainty. But there are plenty of excellent predictors of reliability: Age, steady job, family, friends, church attendance, etc. And simply delaying pregnancy until marriage sharply reduces the danger of a mistake, because the father is legally on the hook for child support."

So the question then becomes: How much risk can a person take before their misfortune becomes something we don't sympathize about?

Peter Schaeffer writes:

Does anyone get the humor of discussing out-of-wedlock children with an advocate of Open Borders? Check out the Hispanic illegitimacy rate. Note that it rises with each generation.

See "The Hispanic Family: The Case for National Action" by Heather MacDonald

"Those of us who have documented the growing underclass culture among second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans have grown accustomed to being called bigoted “xenophobes” by open-borders conservatives. For some reason, these same conservatives don’t object to anyone decrying the consequences of black illegitimacy rates, or the toll of black gang culture on community life. But point out the high Hispanic illegitimacy and school drop-out rates, or the march of ever-younger Hispanics into gangs, and you can be sure of being accused of “anti-Hispanic cant” by people who work overtime to maintain the myth of the redemptive Hispanic.

The list of bigots just got longer. Add the Economist magazine to the group of entities and individuals who need scourging for their anti-Hispanic bias. In the March 19 issue, the magazine reports the “bad news from California: The vaunted Latino family is coming to resemble the black family.” The magazine has the temerity to offer facts that are fighting words in some precincts of the right: “Half of all Hispanic children were born out of wedlock last year.” “The birth rate among unmarried Latinas is now much higher than the rate among black or white women.” “In 1995 the unmarried teenage birth rate for Latinas was 20% lower than the rate for blacks. It is now 12% higher.” “More than half of all young Hispanic children in families headed by a single mother are living below the federal poverty line, compared with 21% being raised by a married couple.”"

Based on very limited data, it looks like "Hispanic family values" wasn't a myth in 1960. Of course, that was 51 years ago.

Illini writes:

hmm. an older man suggesting that women, for their own benefit, choose older men.

Mercer writes:

" wait for your man to get a steady job, avoid men with questionable family and friends, "

If poor black women waited for men like this most of them would be end up old maids. Black women know their odds of getting such a man are slim.

If immigration of low skilled men were stopped more American men would have steady jobs but trying to improve the labor market for Americans is immoral according to Bryan.

Lemmy Caution writes:

"The problem is one of time inconsistent preferences. Most people who become single mothers do so when they are young and their brains are not fully developed. They then have to live the rest of their lives with their decision. Most of us do stupid things when we are young, not everyone has their lives so utterly changed by the stupid things."

Single moms do not regret having kids. They just don't. They are happy they had kids. Like pretty much everybody else who has kids.

Pandaemoni writes:

By the same reasoning, we must conclude that AIDS is a disease of choice. (And in fat ass America, probably heart disease as well for many people.)

It seems fair to ask, "Why don't they protect themselves better?" But since compassion isn't necessarily reserved for the wholly blameless, I'm not sure why the tone is so strident against single mothers.

frankcross writes:

This all relies on a premise that wise action would result in later marriage. I don't think that is established.

I suspect that women are acting efficiently -- they want children, they assess the probability of marriage in the foreseeable future as slim, so they don't wait.

Ghengis Khak writes:
Illini writes: hmm. an older man suggesting that women, for their own benefit, choose older men.

Yea, Bryan's going to be swimming in trim after this. Everyone knows how many young, single women lurk at econlib.

Zg writes:

I can forgive almost anyone one mistake, especially one involving sex, and that's essentially the situation a single parent finds themselves in.

A single women with six children is probably irresponsible. One child, with a man who isn't perfect, from one night of unprotected sex is a mistake that many people could and have made and one which I can empathize with.

7 children not so much...

Jack Davis writes:

I don't know if anyone has mentioned this already, but with the new mandate that insurance companies cover birth control, it's even less excusable not to use it.

If Ghengis is wrong and there are lots of single women at this site and following this discussion, my email is @jackdav38@gmail.com:)

[*guffaw* Jack, we usually have a policy frowning on posting email addresses in the body of the comment, but I'll waive the rule this time as a reward for your cleverness. For the record, I do know there are a reasonable number of women who post or lurk here; but it's probably somewhere between the percentage of women majoring in economics in college and that studying economics in grad school. Not a very big number. Hope you have some success, all the same!--Econlib Ed.]

Roger writes:

Seems the logical path is to incentivize the single mothers to disclose paternity prior to receiving any aid. Then hold the cads accountable for their actions via child support.

I realize this can never work perfectly (rape, deadbeat dads,etc), but it can begin to change the dynamic. Indeed, it incentivizes the alphas to either practice birth control or put a ring on it.

I hate to sound callous, but I do not wish to subsidize either the mother or the father's irresponsibility in this circumstance.

Mercer writes:

"hold the cads accountable for their actions via child support."

This already happens. In my state driver licences are taken away for unpaid child support.

twv writes:

Bringing a child into the world that you did not plan for, and cannot support, is a moral failing of high order. Everybody knows this, but nobody wants to say this.

Policies that subsidize this encourage the behavior.

Traditionally, there existed a strong cultural opprobrium against bastardy and on the status of being an unwed mother. Further, there was no government support for unwed motherhood. When taxpayer-funded aid was extended to unwed mothers, unwed motherhood skyrocketed.

Reduce costs, increase the less costly behavior. Surprise? No surprise. Critics of this extension of "welfare" payments made this point at the time. They were pooh-poohed.

It interests me that almost no one ever considers harsher measures against children born into poverty.

What harsher measures could be made? States that distribute aid to unwed mothers could make sterilization a requirement of such aid. Of course, simply not directing ANY aid to unwed mothers would be less invasive and dangerous.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone suggest criminal proceedings or forced estrangement of baby from mother. It's interesting how narrow debate is on so many measures. A lot of "morality" is assumed. And a lot assumed away.

Jack Davis writes:

Thx for not censoring me. It's a long shot, but why not try. I'm an optimist-- after all, Bryan talked about the pessimistic bias in his book; I'm trying to be a good economist and get a date at the same time:)

Best,
Jack D.

Babinich writes:

Bryan, is this a direct quote by you?

Parents have clear short-run effects on their kids, but little long-run effect.

Regardless of who owns that statement I believe the statement to be misleading.

We have to define little.

Without defining little I have to disagree with this statement. Environment plays more than a little role in human development. By little long-run effect are you assuming that a grown child must hold the same views as their parents? Or can the long run effect produce outcomes where the views of the children are one hundred and eighty degrees from those of the parents?

In short, parents are correct to think that they can change their children. Their mistake is to suppose that the change will endure. Instead of thinking of kids as lumps of clay that parents "mold," we should think of kids as plastic that flexes in response to pressure - and springs back to its original shape once the pressure goes away.

Pressure, especially peer pressure, can have devastating effects on anyone. From drug use, to graft, to voting along party lines in exchange for future political favors pressure impact everyone. What counts is how the individual responds to that pressure. Does a correct moral response result from a greater degree of the nature or nurture component?

BTW, who is responsible for that original shape?

Joe Cushing writes:

"b. Sex with birth control, unlike abstinence, does not lead to chronic burning lust."

That is the first time I every saw somebody address this so clearly and bluntly. We all know this but the way you said it, makes it so clean and out in the open. Abstinence folks have no answer to this. The only reliable way to cure constant burning lust is to act on it. Also, constant burning lust is a distraction that can prevent you from doing productive things. Imagine trying to do homework while extremely hungry. Worse, imagine trying to learn in school while extremely hungry and 15 plates of wonderful looking food are all around you.

"A lot of women either do not know about birth-control or more commonly do not know how to obtain or use it. "

A lot of women know about birth control but for irrational reasons, refuse to use it. I have had three girlfriends who all refused to use birth control--despite repeated attempts to explain the importance of it too them. It doesn't even matter that you tell them that you know women who got pregnant while using condoms. They site all kinds of things like getting fat or it "destroying your body" etc. I suspect these women just want to get pregnant.

"marriage sharply reduces the danger of a mistake, because the father is legally on the hook for child support."

Men are on the hook anyway. Courts make men pay--sometimes through the nose--sometimes even if they aren't the father (there is a trick to this I won't go into). Some women think they will be wealthier if they have a man's baby. This makes them try to get pregnant--even if the man doesn't want her too. Some women will even go as far as to fish a condom out of the garbage and make use of its contents. Some will go to fraud and tell men they are on birth control when they are not. Some will poke holes in condoms. Finally, some women are just baby crazy and want any mans baby at any cost. I once saw an add on craigslist for a girl who wanted "pregnancy risk sex." That's a girl with baby fever.

Huxley writes:

These women are responding to the incentives they are presented. I agree with Charles Murray that you simply don't give single women money for having children. You pay for abortions or orphanages instead. If the women can't support the children, then the children are taken away and put into foster care. That will change some behaviors pretty quickly, or at least cause the fathers to get involved in supporting their children.

jseliger writes:

One other observation, which I also left on Robin Hanson's blog: our society is fairly devoted to the ideology and implementation of individual freedom, choice, and autonomy. But part of that freedom is the freedom to screw up using conventional methods. From what I can tell, it seems that we collectively now have more freedom in our romantic and workplace lives than we once did—but the flipside of that freedom is a greater ability to make choices that might impair earning potential or offspring fitness.

infiniteguest writes:

"Parents have clear short-run effects on their kids, but little long-run effect."

These underage, low income single mothers are not adopting children. The results of the twin adoption studies are not generalisable to this population. Particularly when you take into account the high proportion of these mothers who have drug/alcohol addiction.

Doesn't necessarily mean a gov intervention will help. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking this type of poverty has no long-term impact on children.

Noah Yetter writes:
b. Sex with birth control, unlike abstinence, does not lead to chronic burning lust.
Not sure how to reconcile this statement with all your others. Here you seem to be acknowledging that there is a non-rational (i.e. instinctual) motive behind sexual activity. Yet the rest of your post suggests you believe engaging in sex to be exactly like any other deliberate act. You can't have it both ways.

The truth is that humans are programmed to seek out mates and reproduce. Often we do so sub-rationally, meaning our actions are not fully deliberate. On some level, criticizing people for having sex is like criticizing them for sneezing: they can't fully help it.

caryatis writes:

Bryan, do you have evidence for "c. Potentially poor women who delay child-bearing have a high chance of finding a reliable man before becoming infertile"?

If you live in a poor neighborhood, eligible men with steady jobs and inclined to marry might not be easy to find. In other words, what if the choice is single motherhood or no motherhood?

v writes:

Not enough women comment or read this, most likely. But if you recall the last time you spoke to a poor, single mother of any race, she probably reminded you that she WANTED the baby, with or without the man. The problem, as some see it, is letting her know that the child (or children) won't make her life better and she is not doing the child (or children) a favor. Otherwise, she is too young to get a prescription by herself but boyfriend/hormones are too much to say no, or the doctor visit is too costly or inconvenient (pelvic exam every time you want a renewal), or there ARE no good men to marry from the group she can choose from....And seriously, a lot of young girls don't know about standard birth control because abstinence was all they were taught. Urban legends, myths about home remedies, lack of complete knowledge about birth control effectiveness and true probabilities of conception is a big cause of unwanted teen pregnancy (and college pregnancies). The truth is to advocate for easy access to birth control, morning after pills AND abortions, but you try to get that passed in America in the name of alleviating poverty....

ID writes:

@Pandaemoni
Yes, in the US it's quite clear that AIDS is a disease of choice. The overwhelming majority of Americans with AIDS got it through IV drug use or sexual transmission (the overwhelming majority in this category being homosexual males). Like overeaters who become obese, smokers who get lung cancer, and yes, single women who become pregnant, they have no excuse because the relevant information is easily available. I have little sympathy for them. If I was engaging in a high risk behavior, even if out of ignorance, I certainly wouldn't expect anyone else to have any sympathy for me.

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