May 20, 2003

May 20, 2003 | News Releases on Family and Marriage

Encouraging Marriage is the Best Way to Reduce Child Poverty, Study Says

President Bush wants federal lawmakers to spend $300 million per year to encourage single parents on welfare to marry-a modest investment that would lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, says a paper from The Heritage Foundation.


Analysts Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson, Patrick Fagan and Lauren Noyes studied data collected by the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study. That survey is an ongoing project of Princeton and Columbia universities and provides the best available information about non-married parents near the time of their child's birth.


Some 38 percent of the mothers in the study were unmarried when their child was born. But almost half of those mothers were living with the child's father at that time, and an additional 23 percent said they were romantically involved with the father. And few were young teenagers, as most people expect; the median age for these mothers was 22.


The Heritage analysts designed a marriage simulation to show what would happen if these single parents tie the knot. The simulation shows that if single mothers marry the fathers of their children, the result is a dramatic drop in child poverty. "In general," they write, "a 10 percent increase in the marriage rate of poor single mothers would reduce poverty among that group by 7 percentage points." Since more than 1.3 million children are born out of wedlock each year, an increase in marriage would, over time, rescue millions of children from poverty.


Not surprisingly, marriage would help unemployed single mothers the most. The simulation shows 100 percent of this group will be poor and depend on welfare. Marrying the father would lift two-thirds of those families out of poverty.


But the results are also striking if the mother works, the analysts say. "Marriage, combined with part-time maternal employment, not only raises nearly all families above poverty, but in many cases raises family income well above the poverty level," they write. Single mothers working part-time will live in poverty 55 percent of the time-a figure that drops to 17 percent if they marry.


Each year, one third of all U.S. children are born outside of wedlock. An effective marriage-promotion program can change that, the Heritage analysts say, as the Fragile Families study shows 73 percent of the parents of those children are still in a relationship when the children are born. Simply getting those parents to marry would greatly reduce child poverty and welfare dependence, the analysts say.


President Bush's plan would encourage healthy marriage by giving parents accurate information about the benefits of getting married. It would also provide marriage skills education, and reduce the financial penalties in current federal welfare programs that discourage marriage.


An earlier Heritage study showed that children who are raised in marriage by both parents are less likely to have emotional problems, less likely to become criminals and less likely to end up on welfare themselves.


As Fagan observes, "Marriage is good for the mother, good for the father and good for the children. By encouraging marriage, we're encouraging a policy that will benefit all of us."

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