As I have noted in this space many times, the official U.S. poverty rate, which is calculated by the Census Bureau, is a hopelessly misleading indicator of American living standards. Among other problems, it fails to include the value of non-cash government transfer programs (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies) and refundable tax credits, and it adjusts for price changes using an index that tends to overstate inflation.
When economists Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James Sullivan of Notre Dame corrected for these problems and measured poverty based on consumption rather than income (explaining that “studies have shown that consumption is a better predictor of well-being than income”), they found that America’s consumption-poverty rate had declined from nearly 31 percent in the early 1960s to 4.5 percent in 2010. By contrast, the Census income-poverty rate for 2010 was 15.1 percent.
Yet despite all its shortcomings as a barometer of material deprivation, the official poverty rate does provide an annual reminder of the connection between marriage and upward mobility.
In 2015, the Census Bureau reported last week, the overall poverty rate among families was 10.4 percent. But among families with a female householder and no husband present, it was 28.2 percent. And among married-couple families, it was only 5.4 percent.
In fact, during all the years for which the bureau offers data on this last group — 1973 to 2015 — the Census poverty rate among married-couple families has never once gone above 7.6 percent, and only twice (in 1982 and 1983) has it gone above 7 percent.
Meanwhile, since 1959, the Census poverty rate among families with a female householder and no husband present has never once gone below 25 percent, and it has been at or above 28 percent for all but four years (1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002).
Last year, the Census poverty-rate gap between these two groups — that is, between married-couple families and female-headed families with no husband present — was nearly 23 percentage points. If we compare only families with children under the age of 18, the gap was 29 percentage points.
Of course, there’s a fierce and ongoing debate over precisely why marriage has collapsed in so many American communities. Liberals tend to argue that economic and other factors — including wage stagnation, the decline of good manufacturing jobs, inadequate government spending, and “mass incarceration” — have made lower-skilled men less “marriageable” than they were in decades past. Conservatives, by contrast, tend to blame cultural changes that have been driven and/or exacerbated by the welfare state.
I share Charles Murray’s view that, regardless of what initially triggered the collapse of marriage among America’s working class, it is now primarily a cultural problem that requires primarily a cultural solution.