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, 49.5 percent of single-parent families with children in West Virginia were poor. In the same year, only 10.6 percent of married couples with children in the state were poor. Single-parent families were nearly five times more likely to be poor than were married families.
The overwhelming majority of poor families with children in West Virginia are not married. (Overall, almost a third of all families with children at all income levels in the state are not married.) But a staggering 67 percent of all poor families with children in the state are unmarried. By contrast, married couples comprise only around one-third of poor families with children in the state. (See Chart 2.)
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 occur predominantly among less-educated women. Nationwide, 65.2 percent of births among women who are high school dropouts are out of wedlock. Among women who are college graduates, only 8.1 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.
West Virginia 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 West Virginia, married couples with children are 73 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 West Virginia is actually less likely to be poor than a non-married family headed by a college graduate.
Marital Collapse: Not the Same as Teen Pregnancy
Unwed childbearing is often erroneously confused with teen pregnancy. In reality, only 8 percent of non-marital births in West Virginia 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. 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.
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, West Virginia 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. West Virginia 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. 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.
Robert Rector, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2465, September 16, 2010.
Katherine Edin and Maria J. Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).