Could Delayed Childbearing Reduce Poverty?

Could Delayed Childbearing Reduce Poverty?

Over at The Week, Ryan Cooper has a nice summary of the Paul Ryan-inspired poverty debate, with a focus on contributions by Matt Bruenig and Noah Smith.

I think Cooper has it right when he says, conceding some points to Smith:

Poverty does fall over the life cycle, but not all the way to zero -- chronic poverty is a real problem. And it's hard to resist the conclusion that individual choices matter to some degree, which also jibes with my personal experience. Like most everyone, I know a few people who just can't seem to get it together. Can't find a job, quit ones they do get for no reason in particular, blow any cash they manage to scrape together on a trip to Las Vegas, etc. On the other hand, those people's parents are almost universally from deep poverty.

Ultimately, the view of poverty that makes the most sense is a web of deeply interrelated factors. You've got the way that markets systematically distribute less income to certain people, especially young parents. You've got the way inequality shuts the poor out of many critical institutions, exacerbated by our jalopy government failing at basic macroeconomic management and other key tasks. And you've got suboptimal choices on the part of poor people (they do have human agency, after all), itself tied up in poverty-related damage and stress.

Cooper goes on to agree with Bruenig that the "brute force" approach to poverty relief -- just give them money until they're not poor anymore -- is the most effective. This is mathematically correct, of course, if the goal is simply to take poor people and make them not poor. But there are serious concerns that this approach warps incentives when it comes to work, childbearing, and self-sufficiency.

I won't settle the debate here over whether these concerns are well-founded empirically (or whether the government should care about work, childbearing, and self-sufficiency at all). But I do think it's worth digging into the way "markets distribute less income to certain people, especially young parents." It's true that, as Bruenig puts it, "the mere act of adding a child to a family" can make that family poor. How to address that fact is a huge question.

Many liberals see it as a structural problem with capitalism that markets don't automatically pay poor people more when they have an additional kid. Conservatives (and many on the center-left), however, respond that there's nothing "mere" about the decision to take responsibility for a child; those on the right have for years been saying that people should wait until they are married and financially established to start having kids. It's not hard to see their point in the simple facts that younger parents, in particular single mothers, make less money and children suffer for it.

To put it mildly, though, conservatives' marriage message hasn't been getting through. Nationally, the median age at first birth is lower than the median age at first marriage, and the crossover occurred in the early 1990s. Paradoxically, the educated are delaying childbearing much more than the poor. Government programs that support and promote marriage, despite showing some promise, are by and large not working all that well. And poor women, especially black women, face an enormous shortage of marriageable men thanks to incarceration and unemployment. It's hard to escape the conclusion that, going forward, a large number of women will be having children before they are married, and will often be supporting those children without a husband.

Which brings us back to the questions of how income changes over the life cycle and how personal decisions can factor in to poverty. What would happen if, instead of waiting until marriage, poor women simply waited? This is a depressing question for everyone -- it assumes marriage is out of the question, it ignores the role of men in providing for their children, it doesn't involve greater government spending on the poor. But I think it's at least worth asking. 

There are many reasons to think this would be a great help. The median age for a first childbirth nationwide is around 25, and experts say that increased pregnancy risks don't set in until about 35, so there's plenty of room for change. Women obviously do make more as they get older and, to bring up marriage and men again just for a second, men similarly become less likely to be unemployed or incarcerated -- so, by waiting to have children, women might encounter a better marriage market or at least be able to collect more stable child support.

And though I'm incredibly skeptical of such projects myself, there are even some reasons to think policy or culture could nudge people in this direction. A surprisingly large proportion of births among poor unmarried women are somewhat or completely intended -- they're decisions, not accidents, that could be affected by the messages people receive. And one of the few bright spots in family trends is that teen births have fallen, a success that might be replicated among older demographics.

Many (though hardly all) researchers in this area have come to think this approach shows promise. Putting aside the question of exactly what the policy would look like, how much of a poverty reduction could we see if poor mothers actually did wait longer to have children?

Unemployment -- the state of wanting a job but not being able to find one -- is a good place to start. Using Census data collected in 2013, I was able to group women by age and education and calculate unemployment rates. Here are the results for women with no high-school degree and a high-school degree but no college. I included the 35-39 group because women who bear children in their early 30s will still have young children at that time:

Basically, women in the 20-24 group are considerably more likely to be unemployed, especially if they're not high-school grads. And high-school grads in general have a much easier time than dropouts.

It's also worth looking at personal income among women in this group who are employed full-time and year-round. Here's how likely these workers are to fall under the $15,000 and $20,000 income thresholds. This is again from 2013 Census data, but it pertains to 2012 income; for purposes of comparison, the poverty line in that year was $11,170 for a single person, $15,130 for a family of two, and $19,090 for a family of three:

Aside from an odd data point for 20-24-year-old high-school dropouts (and yes, I double-checked it; my guess is it's just a fluke), the message here is similar: By waiting to have children, women can decrease the odds that those children will live in poverty.

Certainly, in a free-market economy, people will earn more as they gain experience and skills. This can be seen as a structural problem that must be solved by redistributing money to young single mothers. Or it can be seen as a simple reality that people should consider when making personal decisions.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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