Reducing children at risk

—Robert Cherry

Today, more than half of the new mothers under 30 years old are unwed, and even enhancing the government support they receive may not substantially alter the risk their children face. A recent study finds that especially young men are less likely to flourish when raised by single mothers. Paid leave, childcare support, and universal pre-K are all policies that help these women balance work and family. However, unless there is a change in family formation, these expansions may have only modest impacts on these risks.

The rise of single motherhood reflects to a substantial degree the economic marginalization of working class men. Employment rates of young men without a four-year college degree have substantially declined and young women correctly judge that many of them are  just not going to be reliable partners. Moving Working Families Forward recommends a number of policies to better their employment prospects, including vocational high school programs that improve not only technical skills but also the soft skills – teamwork, punctuality, and interpersonal discourse – that are important to employability.

Low marriage rates are also exacerbated by the large financial penalties many working single mothers must pay for getting married. The government now provides them with substantial income support. However, virtually all those benefits are lost if a single mother marries a working partner. With the way the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is structured, she could lose $3,200 or more if she qualifies for state EITC.

There have been a number of proposals for eliminating the federal component of the marriage penalty. One of them is my New Mothers Tax Relief proposal, which would virtually eliminate the federal marriage penalty by extending full EITC benefits to families with incomes of $40,000 and then slowly reduce them. About $2,000 in new benefits would then be extended to lower middle class married couples with pre-school aged children. These families often face financial pressures when they have very young children—pressures that can cause marital tensions and disruptions.

These employment and family formation proposals may be perceived as too incremental by the ideological Left and, despite their very modest costs, may be dismissed as too expensive by the Right. For those in the broad middle, however, they should be seen as vital steps in improving family stability.

Robert Cherry is Brueklundian Professor in the Department of Economics at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and author of many books, including Moving Working Families Forward: Third Way Policies That Can Work (NYU Press, 2012).