The link between family structure and poverty

Nicole M. King
7 Apr 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - Project to improve poor children's intellect led to better health, data shows

The New York Times recently highlighted a study that seems to show promising results for a specialized-care program for children born into poverty.

In 1972, researchers in North Carolina began tracking two groups of babies from poor families. In one group, "the children were given full-time day care up to age 5 that included most of their daily meals, talking, games and other stimulating activities." The other group received baby formula, but no other form of interaction. The full study was published in Science on Thursday of last week. "By age 30," reports the Times, "those in the group given special care were four times as likely to have graduated from college." In addition, however, both men and women in the treatment group had better health outcomes, including lower rates of hypertension and risk factors for heart disease, better nutritional habits, and lower rates of diabetes and stroke. Surprised by the physical health benefits and thrilled about potential outcomes for children born into poverty, the researchers are currently looking into how the cost of the program ($16,000 per child, per year, in 2010 dollars) compares with the cost of medical care were the children not enrolled.

While better outcomes for children born into poverty is undoubtedly a worthy goal, the glaring omission in this story is what places those children in poverty to begin with. Other research has demonstrated that we might better use that $16,000 per child, per year.

The New Research - The key determinant of child poverty

According to the prevailing dogma of the welfare system, better job-training programs, education, and daycare subsidies will lift unwed mothers and their children out of poverty. That strategy - which has been pursued for at least a generation - has little to show for itself while its framers have ignored the growing body of evidence that suggests the country will make little headway in reducing poverty without addressing one of its major causes: the growth of the percentage of children being raised outside of an intact family.

The latest study, mining county-level data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, and the American Religious Data Archive, reinforces that verdict. Conducted by Sri Ranjith of the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and Anil Rupasingha of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the study identifies numerous economic and demographic determinants of poverty while zeroing in on the relationship between social capital, religious adherence, and child poverty.

As might be expected, all seven economic variables weighed by the economists, including a county's general unemployment and male unemployment rates, were found to be significantly associated with its child-poverty rate. The researchers also discovered new categories of links to child poverty: social cohesion and religious adherence. Using a county-level composite index developed by the Northeast Regional Center and composed of civic, sports, political, and business organizations, as well as nonprofits and voter-engagement data, the economists established that as their measure of social capital increased by 1 percent in a country, the child-poverty rate declined by 0.41-percentage point. In addition, their aggregate measure of religious adherents (representing Catholics and Protestants) demonstrated a similar positive impact on lowering the poverty rate.

Nonetheless, when the economists ranked the comparative impact of all their variables from the highest to the lowest (using the coefficients of their most sophisticated statistical model), they found that by far the "biggest factor" associated with child poverty in a county is the proportion of households headed by unwed mothers with children under 18 years of age. They established that every 1 percentage-point increase in these households correlates with a 1.2 percentage-point increase in the county's child-poverty rate. This correlation remained statistically significant (p < 0.01) in all three statistical models.

Ironically, the magnitude of this association does not lead Ranjith and Rupasingha to consider strategies that might reverse increased patterns of unwed childrearing. No, the researchers seem enamored with the potential of "community social and cultural aspects for enhancing the welfare of children." That's not all bad; yet the very social capital and higher levels of religious attachment the economists covet find their origin in the family anchored on life-long marriage.