Don't Forget the Men

When we think of reducing poverty and breaking its multigenerational cycle, we tend to think of poor families with children, in particular families headed by a single parent facing staggering challenges in finding both the time and income to provide a stable home.

But there is a growing interest in an innovation that would help break the cycle of poverty by supporting a different population: low-wage workers without children, primarily noncustodial fathers and men without children.

Doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for these workers would help them, in turn, either support their children or build a stronger economic base for their families in the future.

The EITC has for decades enjoyed broad support from Republicans (who like that it rewards work) as well as Democrats (who like that it subsidizes the poor). It is the nation's largest anti-poverty program by far, providing $44 billion to low-wage workers last year. But 98 percent of that amount goes to families with kids. The maximum benefit for a worker without a child at home ($438 per year) is one-tenth that of a single parent with two children ($4,824).

In just about five years, the idea of expanding EITC for childless workers has become highly popular with the left and enjoys some support on the right. The policy was proposed by then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2006, and the Center for American Progress made it a core element of its 2007 poverty-reduction plan. Ron Haskins, a former staffer in Newt Gingrich's House of Representatives who helped author the 1996 welfare-reform bill, is a vocal advocate, and in New York state, Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, enacted a limited version of the plan before leaving office in 2006.

So why has helping single, childless workers become the darling of poverty policy, especially for those concerned about families with children?

First, enhancing the value of work addresses an increasing need within a population that has been facing acute hardship, even before the recession. There's growing alarm at the levels of joblessness among young minority men. From 1966 to 2003, the employment rate of black men ages 20 to 24 declined from 83 percent to 56 percent. Nearly two-thirds of poor black men ages 16 to 50 and three-fourths of those ages 16 to 24 were not employed at all in 2004.

Second, improving the well-being of poor children hinges on increasing fathers' economic contributions. Between 1992 and 2005, the labor-force participation rate of never-married mothers jumped from 53 percent to 73 percent, and earnings of female-headed households doubled. Yet most former welfare recipients -- as well as many other single mothers -- are mired in low-wage jobs with dim prospects for advancement. Consequently, the child-poverty rate hovers at 18 percent nationwide.

And while intensified child-support enforcement efforts increased payments in recent years, 70 percent of the 3.5 million poor noncustodial fathers pay no child support at all. Half are jobless. Unlike single mothers, however, absent fathers and other single men receive little assistance from the nation's welfare and job-training systems.

For conservatives, much of the appeal of increasing the EITC for childless workers rests on the prospect that wage subsidies might boost marriage rates. Census data show that young men earning $20,000 to $40,000 are two and a half times as likely to be married as those earning less than $10,000.

Despite Obama's early leadership on the issue, expansion of EITC for childless workers was surprisingly omitted from both the economic stimulus legislation and the administration's 2010 budget. But the House inserted the EITC expansion into cap-and-trade legislation it passed in June, and whether on that vehicle or another, enacting this legislation will provide a critical next step in poverty reduction efforts by helping poor working adults and the families that rely on them.