By Far the Largest Observable Factor

The number of scholars and journalists who write frequently about the effects of family fragmentation in the United States is not large; certainly not as large as the severity of the problem suggests and demands.  But of those who do, Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute is one of the best and most important.  Her 2007 book, Marriage and Caste in America remains pivotal, and her essays and other contributions for organizations websites such as the Institute for Family Studies are always crisply informative.

For a prime example, I would urge taking a look at piece she wrote a couple of months ago for IFS that I caught up with just the other day: “New Insights Into the Poverty and Affluence Gap Among Major Racial and Ethnic Groups” (February 26, 2019).  It draws on a new study by Penn State demographer John Iceland, “Racial and Ethnic Inequality in Poverty and Affluence: 1959 to 2015.”  Here a few vital but ultimately unsurprising findings, as reported by Hymowitz:

  • Iceland’s most “enlightening – and sure to be controversial findings” come when he controls for characteristics associated with poverty: family structure, family size, education, age, nativity, and metropolitan status. For instance, when viewing whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians collectively, Iceland finds immigrant status to most closely correlate with poverty, with education best correlating with affluence.
  • When it comes to black-white poverty rates, differences in age explain 16 percent of the gap (African Americans are younger than whites on average). Differences in education explain 15 percent of the gap.  While differences in female-headed households explain one-third of the difference, by far the largest observable factor.  As for “unobservable” factors, Iceland (rightly) argues that discrimination, while still significant for blacks and American Indians, has become less so over time.
  • Also over time, Hymowitz writes that Iceland’s study shows that “the association between single parenthood has become more important for explaining black affluence.” And that while family structure is far from the only characteristic for explaining the gap in affluence between black and whites, it is the largest.  (Emphasis in the original.)

Some might charge I’m a Mitch-One-Note when it comes to family fragmentation, which is the relatively new term of art for “family breakdown.”  This is not the case, though I can see how some might think so since I’ve been writing about it, on and off, for more than 40 years.  But if called on to explain my preoccupation, I would simply if sadly note how a social disaster then – vast numbers of kids hurt and held back by growing up under roofs where only one of their parents lives – has grown worse.