Kathryn Edin on Poverty in America

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on April 21, 2008

The need to address poverty in America with effective public policy is becoming even more apparent as all levels of society face rising healthcare costs, growing unemployment, issues around housing affordability, and a faltering U.S. economy. The research of Kathryn Edin, professor of public policy and management, focuses on myriad aspects of poverty and American life.

Q. More than a decade has passed since welfare reform was enacted in the United States with the stated goal of better equipping poor families to become self-sufficient. While there is still no consensus as to the success or failure of welfare reform, how do you assess its progress today?

Edin: There are big winners and big losers. At about the same time we reformed the welfare system, we made work pay better than welfare by implementing the earned income tax credit (EITC). This credit ensures that if you are a low wage worker, especially a single mom with no other earner in the household, the government pays you at tax time; you don’t pay the government. Families are getting thousands of dollars that supplement their income when they file their taxes each spring.

The problem with this solution is that it’s based on the assumption that everyone can work full time, full year. Because of what’s happening in the economy, lots of people can’t sustain full time, full year work. Then there are sick kids and disabled relatives to care for, very low human capital, and other reasons people can’t maintain a full time participation in the labor market. So there are also big losers. Whereas full time, full year workers who used to be on welfare are now probably better off than they’ve been in a long time – largely because of the tax credit – those who aren’t able to sustain full time work are possibly worse off than they’ve ever been before. At any given time roughly a third of people who used to be on the welfare rolls are without any visible means of support. We know very little about how those people or their children are doing.

Q. Much of your research has focused on marriage, motherhood, and unmarried couples, and how these roles and relationships figure into the dynamics of poverty in America. What does your research show?

Edin: Everything we used to think about the poor with regards to marriage is probably wrong. We now know through a combination of survey evidence and the in depth interviews we’ve conducted all over the country that the poor value and, in fact, revere marriage. One woman told me, “I don’t believe in divorce, that’s why none of the women in my family are married.” There’s a sacredness to marriage in the minds of most of the poor. Ironically, the last thing they want to do is sully the institution of marriage with their own fragile relationships. They want to get married eventually, but they want to wait until they’re sure the marriage will last. And eventually, about 70 percent of women who ever give birth outside of marriage will indeed wed.

Another thing we thought we knew is that fathers who are unmarried really didn’t want to be fathers, they just wanted sex and an easy way out. What we’re finding – again, both with survey evidence and the in depth qualitative interviews we’ve been doing in four cities [Philadelphia, Charleston, Austin and San Antonio] across the country – is that fathers are deeply desirous of fatherhood and really see it as a key source of meaning and identity. In fact, the father-child relationship is of greater importance to the father than the couple relationship. And so fathers are struggling to stay connected to their kids, which is especially hard once the relationship between the parents dissolves.

There are huge barriers to their involvement and the most central barrier is not disinterest or even a lack of money. Sure, economics plays a big role and so does drug addiction and incarceration which affect so many low-skilled men. But what we’ve learned recently is that it’s really transition to subsequent relationships that is the factor most centrally associated with declining father involvement over time. As moms move to new relationships, they usually partner with better-off men than they had partnered with before and they’re sorely tempted to trade off the old, troubled dad – who might be an ex-con, who might be unstably employed, who might have a substance abuse problem – with the new dad. The dad on his part is also transitioning to new relationships and new responsibilities, and he doesn’t have enough resources to go around. So as moms and dads at the low end of the income distribution struggle to form families, the complexity of their families really makes it difficult for them to be involved with more than one family at a time.

Q. You’ve just touched on your latest research on the role of fatherhood in the lives of unmarried, low income men. Tell us more about that research.

Edin: When we ask guys, “What would your life be like without your children?” –  these are low income fathers that we’ve been interviewing in four cities, Laura Lien, Timothy Nelson and I – we expected them to say, “Life would be so much easier, I’d be so much better off, I wouldn’t have these child support obligations.” Instead, they say “I’d be dead or in jail. Everything good in my life is because of my kids.”

We discovered this about mothers five or six years ago, but the fact that fathers are also saying this is really striking. They’re also saying, “Hey, I’m not just a pay check, I want to be there for my kids, I want to be involved in fathering and, in fact, if I can’t be involved in fathering and in watching the first steps and hearing the first words, and being part of the child’s development, I don’t think I’m interested in being just a paycheck.” So we’re seeing even fathers at the bottom of the income distribution who have the least to offer a child – at least through the eyes of an outside observer – really trying to embrace fatherhood.

The tragedy is that by the time their kids reach the age of 15, only about 20 percent of these men will be involved in their kids’ lives. So the real struggle for policy is to figure out, what’s driving men to desire fatherhood? What seems to be propelling men into something they find tremendously meaningful at times in their lives when they’re clearly not ready for the responsibilities fatherhood entails. One side note: the typical relationship that produces a first non-marital birth is seven months, so these are very fragile relationships, and the men are in very fragile economic circumstances as well. Yet we’re seeing fathers embracing fatherhood and being happy – more happy than mothers on average – when they hear the news that they’re faced with a less than perfectly planned pregnancy. So the first challenge is to understand what propels men into fatherhood at times when most of us say, “they’re not ready.” And the second challenge is to understand why, despite their intentions for staying involved, so few seem able to do so.

Q. We are hearing a lot of grim economic predictions for middle class Americans these days as more economists agree the U.S. is in a recession. We also hear that economic polarization in the U.S. is getting more extreme in the wake of a widening wealth gap. What do current economic conditions indicate for public policy directions around poverty in America today and in the near future?

Edin: The big challenge is to restore the dignity of work. As the minimum wage fell in real terms, people who played by the rules felt more and more as if it didn’t pay to play by the rules. Welfare reform took away the option of not working if one wanted to survive. This probably hurt those who couldn’t sustain full time year round work. But by making work pay through the EITC, it probably helped those who could. And what the EITC seems to have done – we’ve been interviewing poor families in Illinois and Massachusetts who claimed the EITC – is to restore the dignity of work in the minds of low wage workers.

The EITC is not a very generous benefit in some ways; it’s actually about what you would get if you were on welfare in the average state for an entire year. But yet that lump sum of three or four thousand dollars — a sum low wage workers see as their reward for playing by the rules — is tremendously meaningful for people. If you ask a typical mother in a low income community what good mothering means, she’ll most likely say “providing; working hard.” She’ll talk about playing by the rules and she’ll talk a lot about work. As we try to make work pay, I think we begin to really cash in on the promise we’ve made Americans about what work is supposed to do, and Americans seem enormously responsive. The challenge, now that especially so many poor single parents have chosen to play by the rules in the wake of welfare reform, is to continue to keep that promise to make work pay. And not just for single mothers, but for the men that father their children too. And more and more, the real challenge is going to be to make work available.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add?

Edin: One of the most exciting things that I’ve been involved with over the last ten years – something that I think really captures what the Kennedy School is about – is the opportunity to do mixed method research. For example, I’ve been involved in doing work on the federal Moving to Opportunity experiment, which gives people in highly distressed public housing the opportunity to move to a low poverty neighborhood.

Survey researchers, including researchers here at Harvard, have been following these families to see how they’re doing. We’ve been not only surveying them but we’ve also been going to their households, accompanying them on their daily routines, following their kids into the classroom, talking to them about their daily lives and their hopes and dreams for the future, really looking at how they search for jobs and connect with employers, and what those experiences are like.

I think by combining the more in-depth, qualitative techniques with the more standard survey techniques, we can learn a tremendous amount about how policy really works on the ground. We don’t have to imagine why a policy did or didn’t work, we can actually follow people through their experiences in living with that policy and see what happens. That’s something that hasn’t been done much before and I think it has tremendous promise.

Print print | Email email