Earlier this year, I was at a conference on fighting poverty, and a member of the audience asked a question that made the experts visibly uncomfortable.
“What about family structure?” he asked. “Single-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent ones. Does family structure play a role in poverty?”
The scholar to whom the question was directed looked annoyed and struggled to formulate an answer. The panelists shifted in their seats. The moderator stepped in, quickly pointing out that poverty makes it harder for people to form stable marriages. She promptly called on someone else.
I sighed. As an economist who studies inequality and families, I have often found myself in the same position as the questioner. I have suggested in similar settings that we need to consider how marriage and household structure affect children’s life outcomes, only to be met with annoyance or evasion.
Academics like me tend to be uncomfortable discussing these issues in policy conversations, because we don’t want to come across as shaming anyone, particularly single mothers. We find it much easier to talk about things like government-transfer programs, tax codes, wage subsidies, and public schools as opposed to marriage and family formation. Most of us don’t want to appear judgmental or meddlesome.