Poverty and Family Type

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The old saw is that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, as if statistics were in some way a variety of lie. Of course, the issue is not so much that statistics are lies, as that statistics represent an attempt to simply quantify a terribly complex reality, and with simplification comes the opportunity for error — often error confirming the biases of the person doing the analysis.

The other day I ran into a very interesting exploration of one of those statistics which is often discussed — that “more families are in poverty” after the last three decades than was the case in the past. In 2006 Hoynes, Page and Stevens authored a paper entitled “Poverty in America: Trends and Explanations” which was published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. One of the interesting things they do is look at the trends in poverty by family type. The findings are fascinating:

As you can see from the two columns on the right, the percentage of families of each type in poverty (according to the governments definitions of poverty) have decreased by significant amounts in every type of family. However, as the two columns of data on the right show, at the same time the types of families more prone to poverty have drastically increased.

For instance, in 1967 10.7% of married couples with children were in poverty and 51.2% of single mothers with children were in poverty. By 2003 those numbers had dropped to 8.1% and 37.3% respectively. The problem is that the percentage of households consisting of a married couple with children dropped from 67.3% to 44.2%, while the number of households consisting of a single mother with children increased from 6.2% to 11.9%.

Due to more people belonging to family types more prone to poverty, the percentage of households in poverty went up (although since those households are also smaller, the actual percentage of people living in poverty went down.)

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  1. You’d think that the “actual percentage of people in poverty” measurement would be a pretty good middle ground between the two camps. (“Total family poverty then and now” vs “family poverty compared to those in the same situation, then and now.”)

  2. (For those wondering if there may be a thumb on the scale because of gov’t aid– the paper is using the Census Bur’s measure of poverty on pre-tax income. I don’t know enough about child support to know if it would count, I believe social security counts and food stamps don’t count.)

  3. I don’t believe child support is factored because it is not considered income. Theoretically, a recipient could be classified as being poverty, but objectively wouldn’t be due to child support income (quite likely many divorced/single mothers fall in this camp). Likewise, a payer could be could considered above the poverty line due to gross income, but actually be living below the poverty line when considering the child support paid (quite likely a fair number of divorced/single fathers).

  4. This phenomenon discussed in the OP is called Simpson’s Paradox. Look it up, it is quite interesting.

    The most interesting example I can think of is a lawsuit brought against Berkeley(?) by some feminist group, claiming their admissions discriminated by sex. The rate of admissions to the school were not the same, indeed with females getting in less frequently. But when broken down by school or department, it turns out females got in as frequently as males, or more, within each school/department. What’s the explanation? Women tended to apply in much larger numbers to areas which had low admissions for everyone.

    It is easy to lie with statistics. It is easier to lie without them.

  5. 46 million…23million, family of 3, 2, black or white. That isn’t the issue; regardless of who it is or how many…It still needs to be resolved! Why do we get so bogged down with subjects “surrounding” the problem but no discussion on THE PROBLEM and a solution?

    Very Confused!

  6. Very interesting.

    The number of people in poverty as a percentage of total population has been more or less stable for the past 45 years. But I don’t find that stat very useful. On the one hand it doesn’t include things like health insurance, public housing, and food stamps. On the other hand, for political reasons, we haven’t changed the laughably outdated measure of poverty. Officially, making $11K in NYC means you’re out of poverty.

  7. RR,
    Why do you think the definition is laughably outdated? While the definition has been relatively static, it requires that the thresholds be reset each year, and they are. So what is outdated about the definition and how would you change it?

  8. The poverty guidelines are based entirely on food prices. That even sounds antiquated. If you were to come up with poverty guidelines from scratch today, nobody would even think go first go to the Department of Agriculture to determine how much a household spends on food then multiply it by an arbitrary number.

    The preferred method in the developed world is to set poverty lines at some percentage of median income. This takes into account the reality that poverty is also relative.

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