The continuing collapse of marriage in America, along with a dramatic rise in births to single women, is the most important cause of childhood poverty. In Kansas, for example, seven of every 10 poor families with children are headed by a single parent – most of them mothers.
Only 5.5 percent of married couples with children in Kansas were poor in 2009, compared with 35 percent of single-parent families with children. In Kansas, marriage drops the probability of a child’s living in poverty by 84 percent.
Such state numbers on marriage and poverty mirror the national ones. Ignoring the positive impact of marriage on children leads to faulty government policies. It’s tragic, really.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans are poor. Some say the dismayingly high poverty rate, stuck at 15 percent, is just the latest sign of a weak economic recovery from a recession that created high unemployment. Clearly, there is some truth to that.
But the child poverty rate – 1 in 5 children, we’re told – was high before the recession and will remain so after it ends.
In 2010, nearly four of every 10 children born in Kansas were born outside marriage. Sadly, the women most likely to have children without being married are those with the least ability to support children financially on their own. Two-thirds of births to women who are high school dropouts occur outside marriage. Among women who are college graduates, only 5.8 percent of births are out of wedlock.
The nation wisely spends billions of dollars a year to educate low-income children, and billions more for means-tested welfare aid for single mothers. But despite the massive impact of marriage in reducing poverty, government does little or nothing to discourage births outside marriage – and nothing to encourage healthy marriages.
Many common misconceptions persist. This isn’t about teen pregnancy: Most nonmarital births occur to women in their early 20s. Girls younger than 18 account for only about eight of every 100 births outside marriage. Also, lack of access to birth control isn’t a significant factor.
Some claim unmarried fathers just aren’t “marriageable.” In fact, the overwhelming majority are. These fathers have jobs and, on average, have higher earnings than the mothers.
Are low-income single mothers hostile to marriage? No. Research shows most look quite favorably on the institution. They simply don’t see marriage as something that should come before the baby carriage. The results are sustained high levels of child poverty.
We need to develop new policies that build on these positive attitudes about marriage. Policymakers and ordinary citizens, looking at these numbers, should demand that government provide facts about the value of marriage to at-risk youths.
For instance, government ought to connect low-income couples with community resources to help them learn, or relearn, skills needed to build and sustain healthy marriages – before they bring children into the world.
It’s also imperative to reform the welfare system to encourage rather than penalize marriage.
Just as government discourages young people from doing drugs or dropping out of school, it should expose the severe shortcomings of the “child first, marriage later” philosophy – especially in low-income communities. Then we will begin to lift millions of children out of poverty.
First appeared in The Wichita Eagle.