Image: Productive Flourishing
New Zealanders elect a new government on Saturday after a campaign in which several parties and advocacy groups have vied with each other to push child poverty to the top of the political agenda. That this should be the case might surprise the rest of the world.
Ours is a small, prosperous country of 4.5 million people, a welfare state (albeit one made over to some extent by market forces) and an agricultural producer which sells food to the world. Yet enough children arrive at school without breakfast or lunch to warrant food programmes in schools serving the poorest areas. According to a benchmark 2012 report, many children come from homes that are cold, poorly furnished and often crowded, they lack raincoats and sturdy shoes for wet weather and largely miss out on fresh fruit and vegetables, which grow here the year round.
At last count around 280,000 children lived in households below a poverty line of 60 percent of median income adjusted for family size (an unofficial measure since we have no official one). That’s one in four children under the age of 18, with a higher rate for those under 11.
Compared with those in average and higher income homes, these children are three times as likely to get sick, and 5.6 times as likely to be hospitalised for injuries from assault, neglect or maltreatment. They are less likely to leave school with the minimum qualification for skilled employment, and are therefore more likely to remain poor and perpetuate the poverty cycle.
But we are not alone. Nor are we the worst among the rich countries for neglecting the most vulnerable members of society. Unicef’s Innocenti Report Card 2012: Measuring child poverty, gives New Zealand a mid-ranking child poverty rate along with Australia and the UK (all between 11 and 12 percent) and leaves the US at the bottom (23 percent), better only than Romania. These rates reflect 2009-2010 data, a 50 percent income poverty line, and a child deprivation index which includes items such as outdoor leisure equipment and an internet connection.
Keeping poverty at bay comes at a cost, of course. The rates for the UK, New Zealand and Australia, middling as they are, reflect some of the highest social spending in the world: about 3.6 percent of GDP for the UK, and 3.1 percent for New Zealand and 2.8 for Australia – compared with around 1.3 percent for the US.
There is much that is debatable about poverty measures, starting with the fact that in rich countries, at least, the poverty line is relative and a moving target. But, lines and statistics aside, if increasing numbers of children are turning up at school hungry and ill-clothed, and at hospital emergency departments with infectious diseases or signs of abuse, there is clearly a problem to address.
The question is: What sort of problem? Inequality – the increasing gap between the rich and the poor? Global capitalism? Miserly right-wing governments? Irresponsible parents producing children they can’t support (a favourite gripe of newspaper correspondents)? Welfare dependency and loss of the work ethic?
What about the most fundamental thing that the majority of those children lack – a stable, married mum and dad? In 2012 48 percent of births in New Zealand were to unmarried mothers, and it is no secret that the majority of the poorest children are being raised by single parents. This is one of the top risk factors for child poverty in all countries, although it seldom receives more than a mention in advocacy literature or political debates. Social science, however, increasingly confirms that the decline of marriage is a key, if not the key, to child poverty and inequality.
According to one US study, 71 percent of poor families with children are not headed by a married couple; marriage reduces the child poverty rate by 80 percent. A US Census Bureau report this week highlighting the first significant fall in child poverty rates since 2000 notes: “Reductions in poverty were significant for children in married-couple families and families with a male householder. The changes in poverty for children in families with a female householder were not statistically significant.”
A Brookings Institution graphic shows clearly that children are much more likely to be upwardly mobile if raised by a continuously married mother.
But a very recent study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues shows more. By looking at different geographical communities the researchers found that lower-income children from single-parent families are also more likely to succeed if they come from a community with lots of two-parent families. As sociologist Brad Wilcox comments, “it looks like a married village is more likely to raise the economic prospects of a poor child.” It’s the difference, he notes elsewhere, between the Salt Lake City metro area and the Atlanta metro area – the former highly likely to lift the fortunes of the poor and the latter one of the least likely.
If, as these and many other studies suggest, the poverty gap is basically a marriage gap, what can be done to reverse what Brookings scholar Isabel V. Sawhill, in an article in the New York Times last weekend, called the disappearance of marriage?
Sawhill has followed this trend for many years and is one of the foremost experts on the subject. Commenting on the way young adults increasingly drift into relationships and parenthood she says:
The drifters need better educational and job opportunities, but unless we come to grips with what is happening to marriage and parenting, progress will be limited. For every child lifted out of poverty by a social program, another one is entering poverty as a result of the continued breakdown of the American family. If we could turn back the marriage clock to 1970, before the sharp rise in divorce and single parenthood began, the child poverty rate would be 20 percent lower than it is now. Even some of our biggest social programs, like food stamps, do not reduce child poverty as much as unmarried parenthood has increased it.
But, alas, in the face of what she sees as a “deeply embedded” culture change, she has given up on marriage as the solution to America’s poverty problem. Her solution? Efficient contraception combined with “a new ethic of responsible parenthood”, which means “not having a child before you and your partner really want one and have thought about how you will care for that child.”
And here’s how they could care for a child, financially at least:
Those from less privileged backgrounds may worry that they will never be able to afford a child. But two full-time $10-an-hour jobs bring in roughly $40,000 a year, hardly a princely sum yet enough to support a family well above the poverty line, even after child care and other expenses. These families should be receiving child-care subsidies and other forms of help. I can even imagine making certain benefits conditional on greater responsibility on their part, but think that might be too great a threat to individual rights. Softer nudges toward more responsible behavior can work just as well.
So, given that it still takes a partner and two (low) incomes to support a family, why not a nation-wide “nudge” towards marriage? Because, says Sawhill, federal backed efforts over the last decade or so have made “little or no difference”. These efforts include, prominently, encouraging unwed mothers to marry, but such marriages often fail, especially if the husband is not the father of the child (and has other children to support).
But Wilcox argues that it is too soon to give up a policy which is only a decade or so old, when other social programmes have been running much longer without unequivocal success. It’s true that marriage is more likely to succeed when it comes before the baby carriage, but even if marriage is no panacea for poor single mothers it should remain part of the mix of government policies. After all, we know for certain that marriage, especially before starting a family, is a remedy for poverty.
But, more importantly, such policy experimentation is entirely consistent with the values and aspirations of ordinary Americans, be they poor, rich, or middle class. The vast majority of Americans want to marry (and will marry), as sociologist Andrew Cherlin has noted. So the question is: Is there a balanced mix of policy, civic, and cultural measures—not limited to encouraging single mothers to marry—that we can take to increase the odds that all Americans will be able to realize their dreams of marriage and a stable and supportive family life?
And not just Americans. This advice applies to every society struggling with the effects of the decline of marriage and the breakdown of family life. The poverty debate in New Zealand shows that marriage is the last thing child advocates and politicians will mention in this context, but clearly it’s high time they did.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.