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September 22, 2010

A Two-Caste Society: The Effects of Out-of-Wedlock Child Bearing


From biblical times down to today, poverty has been a tragic fact of life.  Then as now, the institution of marriage has served as the foundation for a strong society.  For decades, eliminating or even reducing poverty has eluded policymakers, despite their best intentions. But what if marriage held the key to reducing poverty?

            According to a compelling new report by Robert Rector, my colleague at The Heritage Foundation and an expert on welfare policy, the impact of a two-family household in reducing the child poverty rate is astounding. The question of what to do about reducing our country’s poverty rate is particularly pressing as our country finds itself in a severe economic recession with a near double-digit unemployment rate.

            Additionally, according to a recent Census Bureau report, the percentage of Americans living in poverty has risen to 14.3 percent – one of the highest figures in decades.  For Hispanics, the poverty rate increased from 23.2 percent to 25.3 percent. In other words, one out of four Hispanics in the United States are living below the poverty line.

            Sobering numbers, to be sure. The question, of course, is what to do about it.

            For some, the response is predictable: increase federal spending for welfare. According to this logic, throwing more money at this serious problem will help alleviate and ultimately eliminate poverty in America.

            Of course, this isn’t an entirely new concept. In fact, almost five decades ago President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his “War on Poverty.”  In Johnson’s noble pursuit to eliminate poverty, Congress ushered in an increased role by the federal government to spend massively on anti-poverty programs.

            Decades later, it’s clear that we are losing the war on poverty, as the most recent Census Bureau numbers indicate. Additionally, our country has spent billions upon billions of dollars in the process with marginal success.

            The reason for our failures lies in our government’s perverse incentives which actually discourage work and encourage greater government dependence. For decades, welfare policy encouraged single mothers not to look for work and not to get married. Yet work and marriage are the two major antidotes to long-term poverty.

            At the same time, concerned with the political fallout of being perceived as being “against” helping the poor, our elected officials continue supporting the current failing structure.

            We need to open our eyes to other solutions to reducing poverty in our country, beyond more federal and state spending. As Rector points out in his research paper, children born to two-parent homes have a much better chance of not living in poverty.

            With Hispanic out-of-wedlock child births rising -- more than 50 percent -- this is an issue of particular concern for our community. And as the evidence makes clear, bearing a child out of wedlock has considerable financial risks.

            We do, in fact, live in a two-caste society. But this division is not one that we can solve by giving government an increased role in our lives. If we are truly seeking opportunity for all, we need to restore a culture of marriage.


Israel Ortega is a Spanish Media Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Hispanic American Center for Economic Research

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