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Monday, October 6, 2014

Family as a Source of Inequality--Drifters vs. Planners

Isabel Sawhill, a highly regarded and widely published economist at The Brookings Institution, has just published a new book on the economics of the family that has been getting a lot of well-deserved publicity. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage looks at what is happening in the U.S., diagnoses the problem, and offers a solution. The problem is that a large fraction of children in the U.S. are growing up in poverty in a household that does not include their father. These kids are at a huge disadvantage relative to other children, and this helps to drive at least some the growing income inequality that we observe in this country. Before you say, wait a minute, it is income inequality that creates this problem in the first place, listen to what Sawhill argues, here summarized by The Economist:
At the top of the social scale, a more egalitarian version of traditional marriage is still going strong. Nearly 90% of university-educated mothers get married before having their first child—typically to an equally brainy, high-earning man. Such unions are durable and provide an excellent launchpad for children, who are showered with love and stimulation and grow up to do well in school and the workplace. These are the "planners."
Among non-graduate mothers, however, 58% of first births are out of wedlock. And although half of unmarried mothers are still living with the father when the baby is born (and another third are romantically involved with him but living apart), only a third of these couples are still intact by the time the child turns five. By contrast, four-fifths of married couples are still together at this point.
Scholars on the left tend to blame poverty for family breakdown. Ms Sawhill finds this too glib. Families were much poorer in the 1950s, but they stuck together. Unskilled men’s wages have fallen in recent decades, but not by much. This “cannot explain more than a small fraction” of the change at the bottom. On the contrary, the nuclear family is an effective way out of poverty. A child born in the bottom fifth has an 83% chance of escaping it if his parents remain married, compared with 50% if they were never wed.
Much of the problem is cultural, argues Ms Sawhill. The “feminist revolution seems to have bypassed low-income men.” Male university graduates largely treat their wives as equals; less educated men often don’t. They cannot accept not being master of the household, even if they earn less than their female partner. Increasingly, they opt out of parental responsibilities almost entirely. These are the "drifters."
And the solution? Truly effective birth control--especially the IUD (very popular in China, but not so much in the US) or implants--to reduce unintended pregnancies and allow men and women to plan their lives, rather than drifting into miserable adulthood and dragging the children along with them.


  1. I know you will disagree with me on this, but I would like to suggest that the main problem is that men no longer need to get married to have sex (a by product of the feminist and sexual 'revolutions'). For more educated people there is an awareness that there are other benefits to monogamous marriage (in addition to sex), and as such still engage in the practice. But that source of power that women had over men is now compromised, and so one of the most primordial allurements to marriage is gone. The answer is not better birth control, in my opinion, but encouraging young men and women to not engage in pre-marital sex. I realize that this mission is Quixotic, but birth-control/abortion regimes seems to lead to ultra-low fertility populations that, in the long runs, will unnaturally deselect themselves from existence.

    In any case, thanks for a link to this article. This is an important topic and worthy of our attention.

    1. Yours is the classic Malthusian position, and it's not that I disagree with it. Rather, just as Malthus's friends told him two hundred years ago--that's not how the world works. If people protect themselves from unintended pregnancies, then the result is the same as not engaging in premarital sex, without the frustration that occurs when young people with raging hormones get around each other. And, of course, this is also a way to get rid of the need for abortion. Avoiding sex is one way to avoid pregnancy, but contraception is a more realistic way to do it.

  2. sorry to change the subject entirely. but this is worthy of a future article. it appears that the "ebola crisis" is more out-of-control than the authorities would like us to believe. it is now spreading into Ghana. Personally, I doubt that they can contain it in any part of West Africa, and very likely much of Central Africa is also at risk. There is a danger that this outbreak could "go global", especially if an infected traveler reaches the slums in any major world city (Karachi, Rio, Calcutta, etc.). It's too early to tell the outcome. But do the MATH. This version of ebola has a 60% mortality. If several hundred thoudans people are infected in West Africa, what is the total mortality?? This is not trivial. best wishes, Pete, Redondo Beach.

  3. and update to last remark. looks like the total # of ebola cases is probably in the low tens-of-thousands right now, and not hundreds-of-thousands. so perhaps this is onl a "blip" on the local demographics of W. Africa.

    Pete, USA

  4. Ohhh ... and in reference to the actual article. Nah, not buying it. I was a kid raised by a solo Mum, and our family was well down the economic scale. I worked my butt off, got into college and came to the USA. It can be done! The USA still provides move economic OPPORTUNITY than most other places on Earth. People can make it if they want to. Just my thoughts :-) Pete, USA

    1. You overcame the odds, to be sure, but the odds were stacked against you in comparison to a child growing up in a two-parent university-educated family. And, some of the children from such families will be living under a freeway overpass, but the probability of that is low. These are probabilities, not certainties.