Challenges Facing Low-Income Individuals and Families

Thanks for inviting me to testify on the important topic of challenges facing low-income families. It is an honor to testify before the Human Resources Subcommittee. I applaud your purposes and hope that I can help the Subcommittee members understand our current circumstances regarding work, benefits, and poverty by single mothers a little better.

For well over a decade, my Brookings colleague Isabel Sawhill, a Democrat and former member of the Clinton administration, and I have been analyzing data and writing about the factors that influence both poverty rates and economic mobility.[i] We long ago concluded that education, work, and marriage are major keys to reducing poverty and increasing economic opportunity. We also emphasize the role of personal responsibility in all three of these vital components of building a path to the American Dream. But government programs to help low-income American parents escape poverty and build opportunity for themselves and their children are also important.

In today’s hearing, the Subcommittee is taking testimony about marriage and work, two of these three keys to reducing poverty and increasing opportunity. Brad Wilcox from the University of Virginia will discuss the decline of married-couple families, the explosion of births outside marriage, and the consequent increase in the number of the nation’s children being reared by single (and often never-married) mothers. The increase in the proportion of children in female-headed families contributes to substantial increases in poverty by virtue of the fact that poverty rates in female-headed families are four to five times as great as poverty rates in married-couple families.[ii] If the share of the nation’s children in female-headed families continues to increase as it has been doing for four decades, policies to reduce poverty will be fighting an uphill battle because the rising rates of single-parent families will exert strong upward pressure on the poverty rate.[iii] But perhaps of even greater consequence, children reared in single-parent families are more likely to drop out of school, more likely to be arrested, less likely to go to college, more likely to be involved in a nonmarital birth, and more likely to be idle (not in school, not employed) than children from married-couple families.[iv] In this way, a disproportionate number of children from single-parent families carry poverty into the next generation and thereby minimize intergenerational mobility.

So far public and nongovernmental programs have not been able to reverse falling marriage rates or rising nonmarital birth rates, but there is a lot we have done and can do to increase work rates, especially the work rates of low-income mothers. The goal of my testimony today is to explain the government policies that have been adopted in recent decades to increase work rates and subsidize earnings, which in turn have led to substantial declines in poverty.

I make two points and a small number of recommendations. The first point is that the employment of low-income single mothers has increased over the two decades, in large part because of work requirements in federal programs, especially Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The recessions of 2001 and 2007-2009 caused the employment rate of single mothers to fall (as well as nearly every other demographic group), but after both recessions work rates began to rise again.

The second point is that the work-based safety net is an effective way to boost the income of working families with children that would be poor without the work supports. In my view, this combination of work requirements and work supports is the most successful approach the nation has yet developed to fight poverty in single-parent families with children. Here’s the essence of the policy approach: first, encourage or cajole single mothers to work by establishing work requirements in federal welfare programs; second, subsidize the earnings of low-income workers, both to increase their work incentive and to help them escape poverty. The primary work-based safety-net programs are the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Additional Child Tax Credit, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), child care, and Medicaid.

[i] Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2003); Haskins and Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2009)

[ii] Ron Haskins, “The Family is Here to Stay,” Future of Children 25, no. 2 (forthcoming); Kaye Hymowitz, Jason S. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Kelleen Kaye, Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America (Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and The Relate Institute, 2013). For an explanation of the central role of family structure in the continuing black-white income gap, see Deirdra Bloome, “Racial Inequality Trends and the Intergenerational Persistence of Income and Family Structure,” American Sociological Review 79 (December 2014): 1196-1225.

[iii] Maria Cancian and Ron Haskins, “Changes in Family Composition: Implications for Income, Poverty, and Public Policy,” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 654 (2014): 31-47.

[iv] Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach, and Daniel Schneider, “The Causal Effect of Father Absence,” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2013): 399-427.