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Marriage: New Mexico’s Number 1 Weapon Against Child Poverty

See the Slideshow on Child Poverty for this Report

A dramatic rise in unwed births and the accompanying decline in marriage are the most important cause of child poverty in the state. As Chart 1 shows, in 2009, 42.9 percent of single-parent families with children in New Mexico were poor. In the same year, only 10.6 percent of married couples with children in the state were poor. Single-parent families were four times more likely to be poor than were married families.

Marriage and Child Poverty

The overwhelming majority of poor families with children in New Mexico are not married. (Overall, four in 10 families with children at all income levels in the state are not married.) But a staggering 70 percent of all poor families with children in the state are unmarried. By contrast, married couples comprise only around 30 percent of poor families with children in the state. (See Chart 2.)

Marriage and Child Poverty

The higher poverty rate among single-mother families is caused by two factors: (1) the lower income caused by the absence of the father from the home, and (2) the lower average education levels among single mothers.

Marriage, Education, and Poverty

Births outside marriage in New Mexico occur predominantly among less-educated women. In New Mexico, 72 percent of births among women who are high school dropouts are out of wedlock. Among women who are college graduates, only 15.6 percent of births are out of wedlock. Ironically, the women most likely to have children without being married are those who have the least ability to support children on their own.

New Mexico is splitting into two separate castes. In the top half of the population, children are raised by married couples with a college education. In the bottom economic third of the population, children are raised by single mothers with a high school degree or less.

Policymakers clearly recognize that education reduces poverty, but they are largely unaware that marriage is an equally strong anti-poverty weapon. In New Mexico, married couples with children are 71 percent less likely to be poor than non-married families with the same level of education. In fact, a married family headed by a high school dropout in New Mexico is actually less likely to be poor than a non-married family headed by an individual with a few years of college.

Marriage, Poverty, and Race

Marriage substantially reduces the probability of poverty within all racial groups. For example, in New Mexico, non-married Hispanic families are three times more likely to be poor than married Hispanic families. Non-married American Indian families are nearly three times more likely to be poor than married American Indian families, while non-married white families are seven times more likely to be poor than married white families.

Marital Collapse: Not the Same as Teen Pregnancy

Unwed childbearing is often erroneously confused with teen pregnancy. In reality, only 10 percent of non-marital births in New Mexico occur to girls under age 18. Most non-marital births occur to young adult women in their early 20s. Lack of access to birth control is not a significant cause of non-marital births.

The Importance of Fathers

The positive effects of married fathers are not limited to income alone. Children raised by married parents have substantially better life outcomes compared to similar children raised in single-parent homes. When compared to children in intact married homes, children raised by single parents 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; be expelled from school; and drop out of high school.[1] Many of these negative outcomes are associated with the higher poverty rates of single mothers. In many cases, however, the improvements in child well-being that are associated with marriage persist even after adjusting for differences in family income. This indicates that the father brings more to his home than just a paycheck.

Faulty Policies

Ignoring the positive impact of marriage on children leads to faulty government policies. Today, billions are properly spent on the education of low-income youth. Billions more are spent each year on means-tested welfare aid for single mothers. But at present, New Mexico does little or nothing to discourage unwed births and nothing to encourage and strengthen healthy marriages.

Tragically, the critical facts about the importance of marriage in combating poverty are never communicated to youths at risk for future non-marital births. Similarly, the state welfare system ignores and disdains the institution of marriage: In fact, most welfare programs actively penalize low-income couples who do marry. New Mexico will continue to have high levels of child poverty, inequality, and welfare dependence as long as this governmental indifference and hostility to marriage persists.

Ironically, research shows that most unwed parents look favorably on the institution of marriage.[2] New policies should be developed that build on these attitudes. Government should provide factual information to at-risk youth about the value of marriage. It should also connect low-income couples with community resources that will help them relearn the skills needed to develop and sustain healthy marriages before bringing children into the world. Finally, the state welfare system should be reformed to encourage rather than discourage marriage.

[1]Robert Rector, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2465, September 16, 2010.

[2]Katherine Edin and Maria J. Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).