Editor's note: The following Q&A with Robert Rector appeared on The Star Ledger's op-ed page.
We tell kids not to drop out of school because they’ll be trapped in a life of poverty — but say nothing about other crucial choices, such as marriage. Is that a mistake?
Liberals argue the solution to poverty lies in better schools and jobs, and more access to day care and birth control. But conservatives have a point, too: It’s much harder to raise children on just one salary.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has studied the impact of marriage on poverty for 35 years. He explained to editorial writer Julie O’Connor why he thinks marriage is the strongest antidote to child poverty.
Q. Describe what you call the breakdown of marriage.
A. When the war on poverty began in the mid-’60s, about 7 percent of children were born outside of marriage. Today, that number is 42 percent. To discuss poverty in the United States and to leave out the decline of marriage is sort of like talking about geography and leaving out the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. The breakdown of marriage is the overwhelming reason why child poverty exists.
Q. Are people living together and not getting married?
A. You have a large number of single mothers. Sometimes, they are cohabitating with the father or a series of boyfriends. Those relationships are extremely unstable and won’t last. In New Jersey, roughly a third of all the families with children are single-parent families — and three out of four poor families.
Q. How seriously should we take this problem, when there are two contributing adults in the family?
Having the cohabitating father in the home does raise income, but only in the short term. The problem is that the cohabitating fathers are not likely to stay in the home for very long, surveys show. If you want to have a long-term increase in the family income, it’s important that there be commitment and marriage between the parents.
Q. Real wages have declined, too. Why do you say marriage is the most important cause of poverty?
A. Adjusting for inflation, the wages of lower-skill men have declined by about 10 percent from their historic highs. That is not a major cause of child poverty. The much larger problem is that, increasingly, fathers are no longer in the home and contributing their income to the family. A mother’s being married actually has a bigger impact on reducing the odds of child poverty than the mom’s graduating from high school.
Q. Why does marriage matter so much?
A. The vast majority of unmarried fathers have jobs. Their incomes are typically higher than the mother’s income. If they were married to the mothers, the probability of the mother being poor drops about two-thirds.
There’s an argument that this is correlation, not causation. But it is causation in the same sense that if you take your paycheck and put it in your bank account, your balance goes up.
Some say these are unmarriageable men who don’t have jobs or earnings, or are all in jail. None of that is true. Other myths are that these are teens and what they need are contraceptives. But virtually none of these births occur to women under age 18, and lack of contraception is not a factor.
Q. How do you know?
A. We have surveys that ask low-income women who have experienced a nonmarital pregnancy, "Why did this occur?" Almost none of them say it was due to a lack of access to birth control.
Q. What do they say?
A. For the most part, these mothers want to have children. And they want their children to do well in life. But they may be ambivalent about the timing of the birth. They follow a norm which says, first, I’m going to have a baby and then afterward, I’m going to think about getting married. That’s a disaster for the mom and the child, as well as for the father.
Q. If these parents value marriage, why aren’t they getting married?
A. Surveys show that most nonmarried mothers esteem marriage very highly. In fact, they tend to overidealize it. They view marriage the way a middle-class person might view a vacation in Hawaii; it would be wonderful, but it is not a practical part of their immediate life. Poor young women see marriage as a goal they may achieve when they’re in their 30s, not as a pathway out of poverty. That leads to a very bad set of choices.
Q. Some might argue you’re blaming the problems of poverty on unmarried mothers.
A. Poverty is largely the result of individual behaviors. If we say someone is poor because they drop out of high school, it doesn’t do any good to ignore that behavior and say you’re blaming the victim. You must try to change that behavior if you want to help future potential victims.
This is not a matter of finger-pointing. If you want to improve the living conditions, you need to look at the behaviors that are self-defeating. It doesn’t mean that every single one of these mothers can or should be married. Many of these men are nonmarriageable. But nationwide, 42 percent of children are born outside of marriage. To say these nonmarried fathers are unmarriageable is to say that 42 percent of men are unmarriageable. It’s just silly.
Q. What about the men? Why don’t they get married?
A. The real problem is this new social norm, that I will have a child now and worry about being married later. You have large numbers of couples, who are not committed to each other and have not planned for a life together, having a child.
A lot of these men grew up without a father and resent that fact. They will tell you that they don’t want to repeat that pattern. But they do repeat it. Imagine if we never told people that dropping out of high school produced harmful effects; that would be a disaster. We need to give men and women tools to avoid a fate they really don’t want.
Q. Do divorce rates scare you, too?
A. Those are also a problem, but not as much as the complete absence of marriage. Divorce is more likely to occur in upper-middle-class families, whereas birth without marriage occurs in lower-income families that have less resources. Overall, our society is basically splitting into two castes. In the upper half of society, children are raised by married couples with a college education. In the bottom half, they are being raised by single mothers with a high school degree or less.
Q. It seems easier to convince people to stay in school than to make their relationships work. What makes you think government could help people stay married?
A. I’m not suggesting this is a panacea. But we’re really not going to make progress against poverty until we can at least explain to people what makes them poor. Because low-income mothers and fathers are actually interested in marriage, there’s a large potential for them to respond to information over time in a very productive way. To say you should be in a committed, longer-term relationship before you bring a child into the world is not rocket science. When upper-middle-class people hear this information, it sounds self-evident. But it is not at all self-evident to the at-risk population.
Q. Are you suggesting counseling or classes?
A. You could start by providing public education: Just tell at-risk young people in middle school that a single mother is five times more likely to be poor. They don’t know that. We know these single mothers take being a parent very seriously. Explaining the strong, positive impact of marriage on their children could have a very large effect.
The men also want to be fathers, and to be good fathers. But in many cases, they’re not ready. They would benefit greatly by having the pregnancy delayed for a few years, and making a commitment to a woman and marrying her before the child is conceived.
Saying you can’t really do anything about the decline in marriage is like saying you can’t do anything about smoking, without having told everyone that cigarettes are harmful. If you want people to smoke less, you need to tell them it’s harmful and see what happens.
Q. You say anti-domestic violence activists oppose this.
A. They view marriage as sort of a trap where women are going to be locked with male predators. I have great sympathy for victims of domestic violence and those seeking to protect them. But statistics show most domestic violence occurs in cohabitation, not in marriage.
Q. Hasn’t greater freedom to make choices about cohabitation or marriage, and sexual behavior, benefited at least upper-class women?
A. Upper-middle-class people make noises about liberated choices, but they don’t behave that way at all. Yes, they may cohabitate before marriage, but they rarely have a child without being married. Only 10 percent of births to college-educated women occur outside of marriage. If you have a woman with a graduate degree, it’s even lower. You can talk all about sexual freedom in sociology class, but when you get out in the real world, the upper-middle class marries before having children.
Paradoxically, lower-income women have very traditional values. Their goal in life, according to surveys, is to be Ozzie and Harriet. To be married, have a house in the suburbs, two kids, a dog and a minivan. What we don’t give them is the information that will help them move to that goal.
First appeared in The Star Ledger.