A Poverty Reduction Platform

This week’s post describes a straightforward Liberal Republican poverty reduction platform. It is centered on what Isabel Sawhill, one of America’s leading social welfare economists, calls “having children by design, not by default” (that is, by accident).

In her book Generation Unbound, Sawhill sets forth some sad facts regarding the decline of the American two-parent family and its often-devastating effects on children. She explains that over forty percent of all children in America are now born outside of marriage. She further notes that about three-quarters of those children will not even be raised in a stable single-parent family, where one parent valiantly struggles to raise children alone. Instead, such children will experience “the constant comings and goings of new boyfriends (or girlfriends) or the addition of new half-siblings…” (This is in contrast to as recently as 1950, says Sawhill, when seven percent of all families with children under age eighteen were headed by a single parent. That is, it used to be that almost all children in America, whether rich or poor, grew up in two-parent households.)
As most of us can imagine, the single parent merry-go-round households that Sawhill describes are often a hideously unstable way for children to grow up. This is especially so when one considers the abuse that temporary adult partners sometimes bring into a child’s home and the fighting and depression that often precede and accompany the breakups of adult romantic relationships.‎ Such children also experience poverty much more frequently than children growing up in more stable environments. Sawhill states that forty-seven (47) percent of children living in single-mother families were living below the poverty line in 2012. This is more than four times as high as the eleven percent poverty rate that she describes for children living with their married parents.
Sawhill states:

“The key fact to understand about pregnancies and births to unmarried women in their twenties is that a large portion of them are not intended. Roughly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended.”

Sawhill believes that political conservatives have generally avoided the issue of how to deal with so many single parent families because they believe separating sex from childbearing and marriage is morally wrong or undermines responsible behavior. Sawhill states that political progressives also have avoided this issue because they are overwhelmingly focused on what happens to children once they are born, “ignoring the fact that the circumstances of a child’s birth matter, too.”


Sawhill believes that government has a role to play but that, without more personal responsibility, it will be impossible to turn the tide. “For every child kept out of poverty by the earned income tax credit or some other program, another child is about to be born into poverty because of the wholesale breakdown of the American family.” She states, “To keep pace with this demographic trend, the safety net would have to expand continuously. To reduce poverty we must slow down entries into poverty, not just speed up the exits.” Sawhill states, “[Progressives] are asking voters to support an agenda that is more expensive and less consistent with the American value of self-sufficiency than ‎most American voters will accept.”‎

Sawhill explains the relative ease of avoiding poverty in America. She states that she has long argued that “To stay out of poverty, individuals need to follow three steps: graduate from high school, work full-time, and wait until after age 21 to get married and have children (in that order)…[I]f people followed these three simple guidelines, only 2 percent would be poor.” [Emphasis mine] These do not seem to be unachievable goals; in fact, they are remarkably straightforward and politically uncontroversial.

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