Rick Santorum says stay in school, work hard, wait to have kids, and you’ll avoid poverty. It’s not that simple.

August 29, 2012

A couple holding hands / Geograph Britain and Ireland

Last night's convention speeches weren't especially wonky, but one paragraph from Rick Santorum's speech stuck out:

Graduate from high school, work hard, and get married before you have children and the chance you will ever be in poverty is just two percent. Yet if you don't do these three things you're 38 times more likely to end up in poverty!

Santorum got those numbers from Brookings Institution experts Ron Haskins — one of the key architects of welfare reform — and Isabel Sawhill. In their 2009 book, "Creating an Opportunity Society," Haskins and Sawhill identified three crucial social norms: graduating high school, having a full-time job, and waiting until you're 21 and married to have children. Only 2 percent of those who follow all three norms were in poverty in 2007, whereas 76 percent of people who followed none of them were in poverty that year. That's how Santorum figured that "if you don't do these three things you're 38 times more likely to end up in poverty."

Here's the table, from page 71 of the book:


Source: Brookings Institution Press

The limitation of this approach is that it's just a correlation. There are many factors that influence whether or not a family is in poverty--not just family type, education and employment status. But Haskins says he thinks the results suggest causation: that is, education, employment, and family type don't just correlate with poverty reduction, they actually lift families out of poverty. He argues that interpreting the study this way makes sense because studies that used random assignment have found the same thing.

"Well, not marriage, but everything up to random assignment there. There aren't many random assignment studies on marriage," Haskin jokes (imagine researchers randomly making different couples marry or not). "I think that in the field there’s very substantial agreement that these are three crucial factors."

The one thing Haskins thinks Santorum got wrong, however, is the characterization of the findings as showing 'the chance you will ever be in poverty." The study only measured poverty in one year, Haskins explains, not over the course of a lifetime. Many people slide in and out of poverty, due to economic downturns, family crises, and other factors. But overall he thinks Santorum characterized the data fairly. "I like [Santorum], I’ve worked with him a lot. I’ve talked to him as recently as last week," Haskins says. "So I’d admit to being biased. Citing research is a good thing."

But Haskins and Sawhill don't derive the same policy conclusions that Santorum does. Their book emphasizes the importance of promoting marriage and deferring childbirth, but it also supports more investment in schools and policies that produce a robust job market. Their prescriptions include more investment in high quality preschool, national standards for K-12 education, and making higher education more affordable — not exactly a laissez-faire agenda. Sawhill in particular has been blisteringly critical of Republican plans to cut social spending, decrying the Ryan budget as "voodoo economics" with economic projections that are "straight out of 'Alice in Wonderland.'"

The big problem with Santorum's interpretation of the research, says Harry Holzer of Georgetown University, is that it implies poor people are responsible for their predicament. "When people make a statement like that they act like people have perfect control over things like that," Holzer explains. "In a recession, to say that people have perfect control over employment is absurd. There are so many reasons someone might lose a job beyond their control. I would argue the same thing for high school graduation." Even when the job market is good, the best way to promote work, Holzer argues, is through wage subsidies like the Earned Income Tax Credit. You want to boost the welfare state, in other words, not cut it, if you want to promote work among low-income people.

Marriage too, Holzer says — the idea that one can force a marriage to work through force of will is a fantasy. What's more, the evidence on marriage's effects on poverty is much less clear than the evidence on the two other factors, and it's especially unclear that promoting marriage is an effective policy for reducing poverty. "The Bush administration spent some TANF, some welfare money on these marriage promotion experiments," Holzer says. "They did rigorous evaluations and most of them did not work." The evidence on the effectiveness of programs meant to prevent unwanted pregnancies among high schoolers, he says, is much stronger. And what effects there are of marriage tend to be effects of having multiple earners in a household — that is, they're less the results of marriage instilling commitment than of raising incomes.

Lawrence Mead of New York University agrees and notes that having a job is the most influential, and least personally controllable, factor here. "For a single mother who didn't work, the poverty rate was 73 percent. For a single mother who worked at all in a year, it’s 28 percent," he explains. "So it’s still high but vastly lower. Work is the single biggest determinant of whether you escape poverty." Even in cases where people can choose to escape poverty, he says, that may not be a rational decision on their part. " Poverty isn’t primarily about destitution," he says, and if you're not destitute getting out of poverty isn't as critical. "Many people just have other priorities…You can be poor and yet not destitute. Many people live lives in which they muddle through."

In short, it's just not as simple as Santorum's statement suggests. There are many factors outside a given person, from the job market to the size of wages to the quality of K-12 education that determine whether one can follow the three simple rules of graduating high school, getting a job and waiting to have kids. "That’s a wonderful dream world," Timothy Smeeding of the University of Wisconsin-Madison concludes. "But it’s really hard to get from here to there."

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