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Marriage Reduces Child Poverty

Last Updated: September 5, 2012

Marriage is the Strongest Factor in Reducing Child Poverty in the U.S.

Over a third of single-parent families with children are poor, compared to only seven percent of married families. Overall, children in married families are 82 percent less likely to be poor than are children of single parents. The strong impact of marriage in reducing poverty still appears when married and non-married families of the same race and education level are compared.

Around three quarters of means-tested welfare assistance to families with children goes to single parents. In 2011, government spent roughly $330 billion providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low income single parents. On average, the annual cost of benefits came to around $30,000 per family.

Most poor children live in single-parent families. Seventy-one percent of poor families with children are headed by single parents, mostly single mothers. Compared to children raised in an intact family, children raised in single-parent homes are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems; be physically abused; smoke, drink, and use drugs; be aggressive; engage in violent, delinquent, and criminal behavior; have poor school performance; and drop out of high school.

Rising non-marital births leads to increased poverty. In 2010, 41 percent of children were born outside marriage, up from roughly 5 percent in 1960. Children born to unmarried women are very likely to live in persistent poverty.

Low income non-married parents value marriage. However, they have often lack understanding of the importance of having a strong, married family structure before bringing children into the world, and they lack the skills for healthy marriage. The sequence for most low-income mothers is child first, marriage later, which generally leads to negative social and economic outcomes.

Solutions: Marriage and Child Poverty. First, government and culture must clearly communicate the critical importance of marriage to reducing future poverty and other social ills. Second, youth at risk of becoming unwed parents deserve knowledge and skills to prepare them for the task of bearing and raising children. Third, welfare should be changed to encourage rather than penalize marriage, as the current system does.

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