“I’ll be talking first about income and poverty trends overall and for regions. Then I’ll discuss racial and ethnic differences, followed by age and nativity.”
Census Bureau Press Briefing
September 24, 2002
The Importance of Family Structure
In late September, the United States Census Bureau released a 35-page report – Poverty in the United States, 2001. The accompanying press release announced that poverty rates, after having declined for four straight years, had risen during the year 2000, after having declined for four straight years. Families living below the poverty level had increased, they reported, by an additional 591,000 families.
Where did the increase hit the hardest? The press release identified “several population groups” where the poverty rate and the number of poor had increased “all families, married-couple families, unrelated individuals, non-Hispanic Whites, people 18- to 64-years old and the native population.” In fact, the Census Bureau emphasized the increase in poverty among married-couple families, and in the data tables we learn that the number of married-couple families living in poverty increased by 122,000 married-couple families with and without children.
However, there is no mention of the data regarding single-parent families.
Our analysis reveals that the number of single-parent families with and without children living in poverty increased by 469,000.
Strangely, the Census Bureau focused on the 122,000 increase and completely ignored the 469,000 increase. The increase in poverty of married-couples made up just over 20% of the increase in poverty of families; if this was noteworthy, what about the remaining 80%? The vast majority of the increase in poverty of families was among single-parent families. Why wasn’t this addressed?
The poverty rate of married-couples increased from 4.7% to 4.9% – this was a 0.2 percentage point increase. The poverty rate of single-parent families increased from 21.4% to 23% — this was more than a 1.6 percentage point increase.
The increase in the poverty rate of single-parent families was EIGHT TIMES AS LARGE as the increase in the poverty rate of married-couple families.
Question: Why was the 0.2 percentage point change worthy of note, but the 1.6 percentage point change was not?
All Families . . . or Families WITH Children?
Returning to the news reported by the official Census report: An additional 591,000 families fell into poverty in 2000. However, this is, again, all families. Since the issue of child poverty is so important to policy makers, why note the performance of “all families” instead of focusing on those to the neglect of those families with children? Of the 591,000 increase in additional families in poverty, nearly 70%(408,000) of these were families with children.
Once we focus on families with children, the importance of family structure becomes even more clear: Married-couple families are only 10% of the total increase in poverty, while single-parent families make up fully 90% of the total.
In addition, of this 408,000 increase in the number of families with children in poverty, only 39,000 (10%) were in married-couple families, whereas 49,000 (12%) were in father-only families. The remaining 320,000 (78%) were mother-only families with children. In other words, the effect of single parenthood is so large that even when the single parent is male, their poverty rate exceeds married parents.
Furthermore, although policymakers do frequently focus on the difficulties faced by single mothers, the largest increase, by living arrangement, actually came among these single male-headed households. Again, these facts were not mentioned in the press release about the data.
Like a big unseen elephant in the room, family structure is largely ignored in the presentation of official poverty data for America – officials scarcely acknowledge its presence and no one talks about it, but there it sits. Too often, family structure is the taboo in poverty research. Still, the facts are clear – nearly 80 percent of the increase in poverty among families with children came from female-headed households with children. The omission of such critical information borders on professional malfeasance by officials at the Census Department.