Voice: Isabel V. Sawhill

Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and co-author of a number of papers on economic disparities, including last fall’s “Pathways to the Middle Class.” She and Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at Brookings, wrote the paper “Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare” in 2003 and wrote the book, Creating an Opportunity Society, which was published in 2009.

“There are a lot more single parent families now than there were in 1960, a lot more, and their incomes are only about a fourth or a fifth of what a typical married family has.”

Single parenthood has certainly played a role. It’s one of the reasons why that gap has not narrowed, especially since the 1970s.

In Pathways to the Middle Class, we show that your prospects of being what we call middle class by middle age are much higher if you’re white than if you’re African American, and also higher than if you’re Hispanic, although our data on Hispanics are not great.

Isabel V. Sawhill

Isabel V. Sawhill

You see racial gaps in all of our indicators of what we call success at each life stage. We look at how many kids are school-ready by age 5, how many are reading and doing math proficiently at the end of elementary school, how many are graduating from high school with what kind of GPAs and without being convicted of a crime or having a baby as a teenager. Then we look at college graduation and finally at adult earnings and income.

I don’t have any magic answers. One reason for the widening black/white gap, I think it is changes in family structure. There are a lot more single parent families now than there were in 1960, a lot more, and their incomes are only about a fourth or a fifth of what a typical married family has. You combine a major increase in the number of single-parent families, and they’re mostly women. With the fact that they have a very high poverty rate and you are going to get a growing gap for that reason alone.

The Hispanic story might be somewhat more complicated because, assuming you’re looking at all Hispanics, we know we’ve had a huge increase in immigration over this period. The immigrants are now coming from the less advantaged parts of the world. They’re increasingly from Mexico, for example, and they have much lower levels of education than previous immigrant strains.

If you have less education your income isn’t going to be as high. There’s a very big correlation between education and income. The Hispanic story is not just, or even necessarily a story about, single parenting. It’s more a story about education. I’m not saying you can use the same explanation for both.

For the African Americans, the growth of single-parent families is one reason. I think another reason is because African American men’s employment has dropped, especially amongst those without a lot of education. Their employment rates are much lower than those amongst white men of the same age and that gap is widening for reasons that are a little hard to pin down. One might be higher incarceration. Remember that this has been a period when we had tough sentencing laws and a very high fraction of young African American men are in prison. That’s another reason. Not that many are working and when they are working their wages have stagnated or fallen somewhat over this period. That’s because they are typically less skilled, less educated, and it’s hard for them to get anything other than low-paying jobs and there are fewer and fewer low-paying jobs, and fewer and fewer blue collar jobs that used to require just a strong back to earn a decent income, and those jobs have disappeared.

Work, marriage, education, and family size are all more powerful determinants of the incidence of poverty than the amount of cash assistance received from the government.

Sen. (Rick) Santorum during the primary season was citing our work to say if you just do three things: graduate high school, at least, work full time and marry before you have children, your chances of being poor are very, very small. That is quoting our work. It’s controversial because it implies that the problem is totally a problem of lack of personal responsibility. If you just do the right things you won’t be poor. We never really argued that. But they have used our data to argue that. We would argue and did in our book, and also in this most recent report, that you need both personal responsibility and good government policy to deal with these inequities. We think it isn’t one or the other. It’s both. We do tend to favor government policies that encourage personal responsibility. An example of that would be moving from a welfare system that really didn’t reward work, and may have actually discouraged it, to a system in which people get subsidies from the government when they do work. That’s the way the Earned Income Tax Credit and child care subsidies work. You only get them if you’re employed. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a basic safety net at the bottom, but we do favor moving from that system towards a more work-based system.

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