Panel Paper: The Changing Importance of Marriage and Work for Child Poverty in the U.S

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 8:40 AM
Thomas Salon (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Regina S. Baker, Duke University
Since at least the 1960s “War on Poverty,” there has been a rich scholarly literature and extensive debates concerning America’s poor children. The institutions of marriage and work have been central to this scholarship, and thus have been incorporated into anti-poverty policy rhetoric and debates. For example, the 1996 Personal Responsibility Work and Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) aimed to get welfare recipients off welfare and into work, yet the legislation placed great emphasis on marriage being “the foundation of a successful society . . . [and] an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children.”  While ample research demonstrates both marriage and work have negative effects on child poverty, these institutions have undergone major transformations over the past few decades. Changes to the marriage institution include increased rates of divorce, cohabitation, out-of-wed lock births, and single parent households, as well as delayed marriage and a more selective marriage institution. Changes to the work institution include stagnation of median wages and increased earnings inequality, higher rates of female labor force participation, particularly among those married and/or with children, as well as fewer well-paid blue-collar jobs and decreased job security. As a result of these institutional changes, there is strong reason to expect the effects of marriage and work on child poverty may have also changed, which would have both theoretical and policy implications. Thus, this study examines if and how the effects of marriage and work on child poverty in the U.S. have changed over the past 30 years.

Using eight waves of data from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) (which is derived from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) Annual Social and Economic Supplement), this study examines the effects of marriage and work on child poverty in the U.S. from 1974-2010 in a sample of 129,960 households with children. Relative measures of poverty are employed that incorporate after-tax and after-transfer income. Logistic regression results show both marriage and work still decreases the odds of child poverty. However, the strength of these relationships has diverged significantly over time. From 1974-2010, the marriage effect decreased by a factor of 3.3, while the work effect increased by a factor of 2.2. These findings demonstrate that institutions and their effects on inequality are not static and suggest the need to contextualize institutions within time period when studying the sources of stratification. Moreover, while marriage still reduces child poverty, the decline in the significance of marriage coinciding with the increased significance of work suggests a greater policy emphasis on work might be more effective in alleviating child poverty in America. Moreover, in light of the recent economic recession, high unemployment, and increasing job uncertainty, the need to address child poverty is even more pressing. Thus, the changing effects of marriage and work stand to become even more salient for child poverty debates, and more importantly, the families affected by it.