Santorum on Poverty & "Broken Homes" (Part 1)

"I suspect that the vast majority of the 22% [of children] living in poverty are living in broken homes. [...] The reason the middle is hollowing out, the reason people aren't able to rise, is fundamentally a breakdown of the family structure in America and the consequence of that."

On Tuesday, July 21, 2015 on PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff
Sources: PBS, PBS News Hour YouTube 

The Context: Rick Santorum sees rebuilding the American family and rebuilding the American economy as an inseparable pair. He calls the structure and characteristics of "family" into question when asked his proposals for addressing recent findings on child poverty which include that there are more children living in poverty today than during the Recession. In his response, he references Robert Putnam and Charles Murray (among other books, they are the respective authors of Bowling Alone and Losing Ground) as well as his own book It Takes A Family. In short, his answer to the question of childhood poverty is policies which "reknit" and "help stabilize and support stronger families."

 

Part 1 of 2

Santorum says quite a lot packed into these two short sentences. As a project trying to translate, clarify, and ultimately unpack some of the language heard on the campaign trail, we here at Campaign Mapping have decided to tackle this quote in two parts in order to translate some of what Santorum might mean and to translate some of the data discussed in the quote. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

Our atlas already contains two maps that speak to Santorum's point—the map of the country's poverty rate and the map of single-parent households (below). When compared side-by-side, their similarity is difficult to ignore. That similarity, however, may be misleading. The regions where the poverty rate is high substantially overlap regions where the percentage of single-parent families are high. But this does not mean they are the same families, nor does it mean to imply a causal relationship between the two. It does mean that these are communities facing similar conditions with large numbers of several similarly structured households. 

Santorum suspects that impoverished families are indeed "broken homes," a phrase that usually describes families with children that lack married parents within the household. With this definition, there are several family structures that may be considered "broken" including single parents, grandparents, or other adults raising children absent a legal spouse. Given the surprisingly high regional overlap between poverty and single parents, we asked

What is the regional distribution of the poverty rate among married couples with children and among single adults with children?

Of course, the law of percentages affects our findings here. Where poverty is highest, we also see high levels of poverty for both family types. Where single-parent families are highest, we also see more of those families living in poverty. In order to help control for this effect, we also asked 

How does the poverty rate for single-adult families with children compare with the poverty rate for married-couple families with children across the country? Do we see the same regional patterns as when these questions are mapped individually?

To be sure, in almost all parts of the country, families headed by single adults suffer higher rates of poverty than those headed by married couples which suggests a wide-reaching structural difference between the two groups and their economic stability. That said, a very different geographic pattern emerges, one in which we see comparative extremes in some regions while the high-poverty/high-single-parent regions more or less reach the same level of difference as most other places. And so, we have to wonder and tomorrow we'll ask

Might the number of children living in poverty have less to do with family structure and more to do with the number of earners in the home?

Atlas entry continues in Part 2 here.