September 16, 2012 | Commentary on Work and Welfare
A few days ago, we learned an alarming fact from the U.S. Census Bureau: 46.2 million Americans are poor, a record high that’s unchanged since 2010.
Some say the dismayingly high poverty rate, stuck at 15%, is just the latest sign of a weak economic recovery from a recession that created high unemployment. Clearly there is some truth to that, even though the Census Bureau mismeasures poverty by failing to include most welfare payments in calculating income.
But the official poverty numbers tell us that something far more basic than the economy is profoundly sick: namely, the American family.
The fact is, the child poverty rate — one in five children, we’re told — was high before the recession and will remain so after it ends. And the most important cause of childhood poverty is the continuing collapse of marriage, including a dramatic rise in births to single women.
In New York state, for example, more than seven of every 10 poor families with children are headed by a single parent, most of them mothers.
Only about 7% of married couples with children in New York were poor in 2009, compared with over one-third of the single-parent families (36%). In New York, marriage drops the probability of a child’s living in poverty by 81%.
Such state numbers on marriage and poverty mirror the national ones. Ignoring the positive impact of marriage on children isn’t just unwise. It’s tragic.
In 2010, four of every 10 children born in New York 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. More than two-thirds of births to women who are high school dropouts occur outside marriage. Among women who are college graduates, only 11% of births are out of wedlock.
America is splitting into two economic castes: In the top, children are raised by married couples with a college education. In the bottom, children are raised by single mothers with a high school diploma or less.
Remember this the next time someone tries to portray poverty as a purely economic phenomenon that tax policy, education and job training can solve.
What does it all mean in practical terms for the way we attack poverty?
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. These are good investments.
But despite the massive, clearly demonstrated impact of marriage in reducing poverty, government does little or nothing to discourage births outside marriage — and nothing to encourage healthy marriages.
We need to develop new policies that nurture positive attitudes about marriage. We need to provide clear and compelling facts about the value of marriage to at-risk youth.
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, stable, long-term relationships — before they bring children into the world.
It’s also imperative to reform the welfare system to encourage rather than penalize marriage.
While we’re at it, we need to brush away many common misconceptions. Our biggest problem isn’t with teen pregnancy: Most non-marital births occur to women in their early 20s. In New York, girls under 18 account for only five of every 100 births outside marriage.
Nor is lack of access to birth control a significant factor.
Some claim unmarried fathers just aren’t “marriageable.” In fact, the overwhelming majority of fathers have jobs and, on average, higher earnings than the women with whom they have children. If they remained in the home, child poverty would drop dramatically.
And are low-income single mothers culturally 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. That is the terrible misimpression we must correct.
Just as government discourages young people from doing drugs or dropping out of school — or, increasingly, eating unhealthy foods — it should expose the severe shortcomings of the “child first, marriage later” philosophy. Then and only then we will begin to lift millions of children out of poverty.
Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation. He is author of the new report “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.”
First appeared in Daily News.