Blog No. 26. Poverty and Marriage.

SPECIAL-marriage-and-child-poverty-WEB-GFX-2The Fiftieth Anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty spurred considerable discussion of whether that war was a success or failure. In the view of, William Galston, writing in the Wall Street Journal had it about right:

Every serious analysis concludes that poverty in the U.S. would be far worse without the programs launched during the Great Society. So conservatives should stop repeating Ronald Reagan’s canard that we fought a war on poverty and poverty won. It is more accurate to say that we fought poverty to a draw in circumstances that became increasingly unfavorable for lower-wage workers and their families.

Galston argued that, going forward, liberals and conservatives should work together:

We can do more to ensure that children do not grow up in poverty and that they receive effective preparation for formal schooling. And we can do more to encourage a culture of work and marriage while acknowledging that for the foreseeable future, a large percentage of children will grow up in single-parent households whose mothers and fathers will need help to become more effective parents.

In Blog No. 19, we saluted Senator Mike Lee for his willingness to address forthrightly the issues of income inequality and economic hardship. In a September, 2013 speech, Senator Lee emphasized the importance of the family as “the institution that unites all Americans regardless of race, class, creed, or politics.” And he noted that he was “not speaking about the family as a moral or cultural institution [but] strictly as a social and economic one.”  Lee’s proposal to strengthen the family centered on reforms to the tax code and the creation of a $2,500 per child tax credit.

Senator Lee has now been joined in the discussion by another conservative, Senator Marco Rubio. On the anniversary of the War on Poverty, Senator Rubio gave an important address entitled “Reclaiming The Land Of Opportunity: Conservative Reforms For Combating Poverty.”  In that address, he focused specifically on the importance of marriage in reducing poverty:

The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.

Fifty years ago, today, when the War on Poverty was launched, 93% of children born in the United States were born to married parents. By 2010 that number had plummeted to 60%. It should not surprise us that 71% of poor families with children are not headed by a married couple.

Senator Rubio noted that “The decline of marriage and the increase in the percentage of children born out of wedlock is driven by a complex set of cultural and societal factors.” Unfortunately, however, he made no suggestion as to how we should address those complex factors.  Rather, Rubio proposed that all anti-poverty programs be consolidated into a single “Flex Fund” from which funds would be transferred to the states to design and implement creative initiatives addressing the factors behind inequality of opportunity.

Rubio should be credited with acknowledging a problem and seeking a creative solution. As a practical matter, however, his proposal may stand little chance of being adopted or even seriously debated. Apart from the fact that the existing welfare system has entrenched constituencies, the proposal has already been criticized from the right, as permitting states to adopt standards that are too lenient, and critics from the left may well object that standards in some states would be unduly rigorous.

For his part, President Obama has spent far more time speaking of income inequality and its impact on the middle class than on poverty. And when he recently mentioned family structure, he did so in a glancing and somewhat peculiar fashion. In his December 4 speech on income inequality, he referred to “single parent households” (but not children born out of wedlock):

The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups: poor and middle class; inner city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races. And as a consequence, some of the social patterns that contribute to declining mobility that were once attributed to the urban poor — that’s a particular problem for the inner city: single-parent households or drug abuse — it turns out now we’re seeing that pop up everywhere.

Thus, he lumped the increase in single-parent households with drug abuse as a “consequence” of “decades-long shifts in the economy.” That seems a questionable theory, and the President offered no explanation as to how his various economic proposals would reduce the number of single-parent households (or the number of children born out of wedlock).

Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post, has observed that the subjects of marriage and bearing children out of wedlock are difficult for both liberals and conservatives to discuss:

Democrats avoid the M-word for fear of trespassing on important constituent turfs, especially women’s. For many women, the push for marriage is seen as subterfuge for reversing their hard-won gains.

All but evangelicalistic Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who recently “went there” shy away from the M-word for fear of being tagged Neanderthals who are wedded to old-fashioned gender paradigms and nurse secret desires to keep women pregnant, subjugated and in the kitchen where they belong (speaking as alleged, not as is). Or, God forbid, that they be accused of waging war against women.

Parker went on to insist that, “being unmarried is one of the highest risk factors for poverty. And, no, splitting expenses between unmarried people isn’t the same. This is because marriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times.” On the other hand, she did not suggest how the message of that magic might be effectively conveyed to those who need it most.

Whether politically saleable or not, the correlation between children out of wedlock and economic hardship is well recognized.  For example, in 2012, the New York Times published a lengthy article by Jason DeParle, “Two Classes in America, Separated by ‘I Do.’” DeParle’s article painted a detailed and poignant portrait of the lives of two women, both employed at a daycare center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although one of the women, Chris Faulkner, holds a more senior position and earns a higher salary than her colleague, Jessica Schairer, her somewhat larger paycheck accounts for only a portion of the  difference in the life styles of the two women and their children. The principal cause of that difference is that Ms. Faulkner is married and Ms. Schairer is not. As DeParle pointed out, “That gives the Faulkner family a profound advantage in income and nurturing time, and makes their children statistically more likely to finish college, find good jobs and form stable marriages.”

DeParle’s article made it clear that the story of Chris Faulkner and Jessica Schairer reflected broad and deeply troubling trends:

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a Washington research group. Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women like Ms. Schairer who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

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Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man.

In 2010, Robert Rector, a conservative scholar at the Heritage Foundation, presented a highly informative analysis entitled “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.” Some of the more interesting points in Rector’s analysis drew on work by Harvard Professor Kathryn Edin which yielded some remarkable conclusions:

In popular perception, out-of-wedlock childbearing occurs as a result of accidental pregnancies among teenage girls who lack access to or knowledge about birth control. This perception is completely inaccurate.

  • In reality, unwed births rarely involve teenage girls, are almost never caused by a lack of access to birth control, and generally are not the result of purely accidental pregnancies.
  • As noted previously, only 8 percent of non-marital births occur to girls under 18. Non-marital births and pregnancies are phenomena that mainly involve young adult men and women.
  • Research on lower-income women who have become pregnant outside of marriage (either as minors or adults) reveals that virtually none of these out-of-wedlock pregnancies occurred because of a lack of knowledge about and access to birth control.
  • Out-of-wedlock births are generally not the result of purely accidental pregnancies. In fact, most women who become pregnant and give birth out of wedlock strongly desire children. Their pregnancies are partially intended or at least not seriously avoided.

Consistent with the reticence remarked upon by Kathleen Parker, Rector’s analysis has not drawn wide comment from either left or right. Nevertheless commends it to the attention of RINOs and friends of RINOs who are interested in this important issue. Moreover, there are some indications that the public curtain of silence may be slowly rising.  Even liberal columnist Charles Blow of the New York Times grudgingly acknowledged that “marriage has its benefits” and that “in terms of having a child, two adults in a home can often do twice as much as one.”

In addition, some conservatives have recently begun to make their voices heard. For example, Ari Fleischer recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal,  “How to Fight Income Inequality: Get Married.” He urged a policy of “helping the poor realize that the most important decision they can make is to stay in school, get married and have children—in that order.” He did not, however, indicate how best we might provide that help.

Also in the Wall Street Journal, Robert Rector weighed in, citing an analysis by the Heritage Foundation showing that “children raised in the growing number of single-parent homes are four times more likely to be living in poverty than children reared by married parents of the same education level. Moreover, he added, “The consequences continue into adulthood: Children raised by single parents are three times more likely to end up in jail and 50% more likely to be poor as adults.”

So the good news is that the discussion is coming off the shelves of the social scientists and into the public square. But solutions are not easy to come by. Rector’s Wall Street Journal piece did urge, as his 2010 analysis had, elimination of the marriage penalties sprinkled throughout current welfare programs (“For instance, current programs sharply cut benefits if a mother marries a working father.”) In 2010, however, Rector had offered additional proposals including campaigns of public advertising targeted to reach low income communities and educational programs in High Schools and at Title X birth control clinics. The effectiveness of such proposals may be debated, but they should be debated rather than ignored.

Another approach to reducing the birth of children out of wedlock may be to strengthen child support laws. Beginning with the enactment of the Child Support Enforcement Program in 1975, Congress has enacted a number of laws seeking to require unmarried fathers to take financial responsibility for their children. The enforcement of support obligations, however, remains with the states and the effectiveness of enforcement varies from state to state. Studies have indicated that effective enforcement of child support laws has an impact on the behavior of men that may significantly reduce the number of children borne by unmarried women. (See, for example, Robert Plotnick et al., “The Impact of Child Support Enforcement Policy on Nonmarital Childbearing,” April, 2005.)

Promotion of marriage by the government is admittedly a tricky business. It may surprise many readers (as it did to learn that within the depths of the Department of Health and Human Services there has been for several years (and at considerable expense to taxpayers) a Healthy Marriage Initiative. The Initiative was begun during the Bush Administration, with the support if the Brookings Institution and The American Enterprise Institute, and it enjoyed the backing of several senior Republicans, including Senator Grassley. It has been continued during the Obama Administration at a reduced funding level. The primary focus of the program seems to have been to strengthen existing marriages, rather than to encourage marriage before childbearing. In any case, it does not appear to have been a conspicuous success, which may account for the fact that it is not currently being touted by marriage proponents.

At a local level, Mayor Bloomberg, initiated a highly-publicized Teen Pregnancy Prevention campaign using, among other things, advertisements on subways and at bus shelters. The program generated considerable controversy with critics charging that it brought shame on teenage parents and their children. How effective the program was is uncertain and its continuation under the de Blasio administration seems unlikely.

If past efforts have been ineffective, it does not mean that others should not be considered and attempted, at least on a trial basis. For example, most students in public schools receive sex education between grades 7 and 12 or earlier. Debate has raged over whether such education should be “abstinence only” or “comprehensive,” the latter including information on methods of birth control and avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases. Under either approach, however, the curriculum should include detailed and focused information on the economic consequences of bearing children outside of marriage–and the impact of those consequences on both the mother and father and their children.

Presenting such economic consequences need not be dry nor, on the other hand, preachy or shaming. What it would need to be is sympathetic but realistic. For example, one possibility might be a documentary film showing the difficulties of single mothers such as Jessica Schairer, featured in the DeParle article. And to capture the attention of young men in the class, the documentary might also cover the legal obligations of fathers for child support (the enforcement of which may even include incarceration).

The potential of documentaries should not be underestimated. For example, the PBS documentary “Invisible War” is credited with having a major impact in creating awareness and concern over a culture of sexual assaults in the military.Even more on point is the report this week of evidence that the reality television show “16 and Pregnant” has contributed to a decline in teenage pregnancy of up to 20,000 births. The show has its critics, and the underlying data has not been released, but the preliminary report at least suggests possibilities of how a critical message might be conveyed. does not claim to know the answer to the problem of children being born out of wedlock and the poverty that so often results. We do suggest that the problem is too important to be ignored simply because solutions are elusive or discussions uncomfortable.

3 thoughts on “Blog No. 26. Poverty and Marriage.

  • I agree with Monica, it takes responsibility. I wish for a future where our beloved America can have responsible citizens that will not lay in each others’ beds so quickly (it does take two to tango), take drugs as if there were no consequence, parent their children with nurturing guidelines (including love and discipline), manage their money, hold forth a solid work ethic, and most of all, dig deep when times are tough. Easily said from my comfortable chair here. All of this has to be learned somewhere at sometime. I was so lucky to have this upbringing from my parents, grandparents, community and now guidance from my faithful wife of almost 18 years. Responsibility…

  • Doug,
    Sorry for the delayed response. As you know, this is a topic of enormous importance to me, and I am very grateful to you for your thoughtful and as-always eloquent post. That said, I am concerned about your emphasis on “marriage,” as opposed to child-support (even in the absence of marriage), as the solution to addressing child-poverty. You quote Kathleen Parker, one of my favorite columnists, in noting that “splitting expenses between unmarried people isn’t the same (as marriage)…because marriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times.” As a long-married woman, mother of a married woman and grandmother, I heartily agree, but until our collective cultural acceptance of unwed parenthood changes, we must remain concerned about the many children who are conceived by parties in relationships lacking any such “magical concoctions.” Specifically, “we” (the society, the media, whatever) must stop letting non-contributing unwed parents (most of whom are fathers) “off the hook.” The media is filled with stories about the plight of single mothers and children living in poverty with barely a reference to the children’s fathers…if mentioned at all, the fathers are often said “not to be in the children’s lives,” or words to that effect, without further comment or query (let alone judgment)…as though they’d all been lost at sea or in outer space. I agree that “splitting expenses” is not as good for kids as marriage, but it’s certainly better than expecting one parent to try to cover the expenses of caring for the kids alone.
    I thought your suggestions about adding information about the economic and (potential) legal consequences of parenthood to the middle/high-school “sex education” curriculum were excellent. But until we collectively condemn non-supporting parents with at least the same vehemence we condemn smokers (cigarette-smokers, I mean…apparently weed-smokers are ok), I fear such lessons will be dismissed by the smugly irresponsible baby-daddies and future baby-daddies who sit in those classes.

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