June 22, 2011
By Robert Rector
What is the number one weapon in fighting childhood poverty in the United States? Marriage.
Put another way, the disappearance of marriage in low-income communities is the predominant cause of poverty for children today. If poor single mothers were married to the actual fathers of their children, two- thirds would immediately escape from poverty. What's more, the absence of husbands and fathers from the home is a strong contributing factor to crime, failure in school, drug abuse, emotional disturbance and a host of other social problems.
In Michigan, only 5.9 percent of children in families headed by a married couple are poor. But the poverty rate of children of single mothers is 39.7 percent. Marriage drops the odds of poverty by 85 percent.
True, married couples in general are better educated than single moms. However, the dramatic impact of marriage in reducing poverty is largely unchanged even after adjusting for differences in education and race.
The collapse of marriage also lies at the heart of the mushrooming welfare state.
This year taxpayers will spend over $300 billion providing means-tested welfare aid to single parents. The average single mother receives nearly three dollars in government benefits for each one dollar in taxes paid.
Who pays for these subsidies? Higher-income married couples, through heavy taxes.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, only 7 percent of births in America were outside marriage. Today more than 40 percent are.
A staffer in the Johnson White House, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, warned the nation of the calamities associated with the growing rate of out-of-wedlock births. For more than 40 years, Moynihan's warnings have largley been ignored. The result? A social and economic disaster.
Now, in inner-cities like Detroit, births outside marriage often top 80 percent.
Why has marriage all but disappeared in many low-income communities? Part of the answer is welfare. Bureaucrats largely designed the welfare system to serve as a substitute for a husband in the home. Most welfare programs actually penalize low-income couples for marrying.
A second reason for the collapse of marriage: Norms have changed in lower-income groups. Women who have children outside marriage strongly desire children - non-marital births are seldom the result of accidental pregnancies.
Unmarried mothers and fathers actually continue to esteem marriage and desire to get married eventually, research shows. But they no longer think it's important to be married before having children.
Have a child first, then look around for a suitable spouse. That's the prevailing practice.
Women who follow this recipe usually end up in chronic poverty, on welfare, and trapped in a series of fractious cohabitations with uncommitted men.
The idea of "child first, marriage later" rarely leads to successful marriages and families. Rather, it's a roadmap to misery for men, women and children - especially children. Unfortunately, society never communicates this harsh fact to young women at risk of having children outside marriage.
Given the effectiveness of marriage in reducing poverty, one would think the nation's welfare industry would encourage marriage. Guess again.
Unfortunately, encouraging marriage is a major felony in the creed of political correctness. Despite the transparent linkages among poverty, social problems and disintegration of the family, most political elites remain silent on the issue. The welfare system, meanwhile, continues to penalize marriage.
This is a tragedy. To reduce poverty, we must begin to restore marriage in low-income communities.
Step one: Inform young men and women of the importance of marriage in reducing poverty and improving children's well-being. Step two: Provide interested low-income couples with practical information on strengthening relationships. Step three: Reduce the marriage penalties in welfare programs.
Our current system is a catastrophe. The poor deserve a new approach, one that offers real hope for the future.
Robert Rector, an authority on poverty and welfare in America, is a senior research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Michigan View
Family & Religion Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Senior Research Fellow
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 200,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
© 2013, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973