[C]hildren living with single mothers are five times more
likely to be poor than children in two-parent households. Children
in single-parent homes are also more likely to drop out of school
and become teen parents, even when income is factored out. And the
evidence suggests that on average, children who live with their
biological mother and father do better than those who live in
stepfamilies or with cohabiting partners.... In light of these
facts, policies that strengthen marriage for those who choose it
and that discourage unintended births outside of marriage are
sensible goals to pursue.
--Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope
President-elect Obama, the collapse of marriage is the most
important social problem facing the nation. When the War on Poverty
began in the 1960s, 7 percent of U.S. children were born outside of
marriage. Today, the number is 38 percent. Among blacks, it is 69
percent. You are in a unique position to reverse this alarming
The decline of marriage is a major cause of child poverty.
Roughly two-thirds of poor children live in single-parent homes.
Marital collapse is also a major contributor to welfare dependence:
Each year, government spends over $250 billion for means-tested
welfare benefits for single parents.
When compared to similar children raised by two married
biological parents, children raised in single-parent homes are more
likely to fail in school, abuse drugs or alcohol, commit crimes,
become pregnant as teens, and suffer from emotional and behavioral
problems. Such children are also more likely to end up on welfare
or in jails when they become adults.
Revitalized marriage can have a powerful impact in reducing
poverty in low-income communities. For example, if poor women who
have children out of wedlock were married to the actual fathers of
their children, nearly two-thirds would be lifted out of poverty
immediately. Because the decline in marriage is linked
to many other social problems, an increase in healthy marriage
would to lead to a long-term drop in those problems as well.
Given these facts, policies that strengthen marriage for those
who are interested and discourage births outside of marriage are
indeed sensible. But the first step in developing such policies
must be to look beyond the many misperceptions that cloud the
issue. Effective policy must be based on facts.
Fact: Out-of-wedlock childbearing is not the same
problem as teen pregnancy. Although 38 percent of children are born
outside of marriage, only about one in seven of these non-marital
births occurs to a girl under age 18. Most out-of-wedlock births
occur to men and women in their early twenties. Half of the women
who have children out of wedlock are cohabiting with the father at
the time of birth; 75 percent are in a romantic relationship with
the father. Policymakers seeking to reduce
out-of-wedlock births must look far beyond teen pregnancy.
Fact: Few out-of-wedlock births are accidental.
The overwhelming majority of young adult women who have a
non-marital birth strongly want to have children. Although they are
ambivalent about the best timing, they want and expect to have
children at a fairly young age. Most are also interested in
marriage, but they do not see marriage or a stable relationship as
an important precondition to having a baby. To a significant
degree, the decision to have a child outside of marriage is a
deliberate choice for these women.
Fact: Lack of access to birth control is not a
significant factor contributing to "unintended pregnancy" or
non-marital births. A recent survey of low-income women who had had
a non-marital pregnancy found that only 1 percent reported that
lack of access to birth control played a role in the pregnancy.
Fact: Out-of-wedlock childbearing is concentrated
among low-income, less educated men and women. In general, the
women most likely to have a child without being married are those
who have the least ability to support a family by themselves.
Fact: Although the decline in marriage is most
prominent among blacks, it is also a serious problem among
Hispanics and lower-income whites: 44 percent of Hispanic children
and 25 percent of white children are born outside of marriage.
Fact: Low male wages and employment are not the
principal cause of out-of-wedlock childbearing. The overwhelming
majority of non-married fathers were employed at the time of the
child's birth. Over half earn enough to support a family above the
poverty level without the mother working at all. Before the child's
birth, the fathers-to-be, on average, earned more than the
mothers-to-be. If, as some argue, the fathers were not economically
prepared to support a family, the mothers were even less prepared.
Other factors such as social norms concerning marriage,
life-planning skills, and relationship skills play a far greater
role than male wages in promoting out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Fact: Out-of-wedlock childbearing is not the
result of a shortage of marriageable males. Nearly 40 percent of
all American children, and 69 percent of black children, are born
outside of marriage. The sheer magnitude of the problem undercuts
the argument that it is caused by a shortage of marriageable men.
The decline in marriage in low-income communities stems from
changing social norms and from a welfare system that for decades
has penalized marriage, not from a lack of millions of marriageable
Government should help low-income couples to move toward more
prosperous lives by providing such men and women with education
that increases their understanding of the strong link between
marriage and better life outcomes and that equips them to make
critical life decisions concerning childbearing and family
formation more wisely.
Paradoxically, most low-income men and women who are likely to
have children out of wedlock have favorable attitudes toward
marriage: If anything, they tend to over-idealize it. However, many
low-income couples do not believe that it is important to form a
stable marital relationship before conceiving children and bringing
them into the world. They also tend to believe that haphazard
cohabiting relationships are likely to endure and flourish when, in
reality, this seldom occurs.
Many low-income individuals choose to have children first and
then work on finding suitable partners and building strong
relationships. They fail to understand that this pattern is not
likely to be successful. Most low-income young women, in
particular, strongly want children and hope those children will
grow up to enter the middle class, but they fail to appreciate the
vitally important role a healthy marriage can play in boosting a
In The Audacity of Hope, you wrote:
[R]esearch shows that marriage education workshops can make a
real difference in helping married couples stay together and in
encouraging unmarried couples who are living together to form a
more lasting bond. Expanding access to such services to low-income
couples, perhaps in concert with job training and placement,
medical coverage, and other services already available, should be
something everybody can agree on.
You were exactly right. By and large, young low-income men and
women aspire to have strong, healthy marriages. They also seek
upward social and economic mobility. Marriage education can help
at-risk individuals appreciate the role that healthy marriage can
have in meeting long-term life goals and can enable them to make
decisions about childbearing that best match their life
aspirations. These programs can also provide training in life
partner selection and in skills that help to build healthy enduring
relationships. Such programs should not be regarded as imposing
alien middle-class values on the poor, but rather as providing
vital tools to help individuals fulfill their real life goals.
You have also written, "most people agree that neither federal
welfare programs nor the tax code should penalize married
couples." Again, you are right. Given the private and
social benefits of marriage, it is absurd for the welfare industry
to penalize marriage. Yet that is exactly what welfare does.
Specifically, welfare programs create disincentives to marriage
because benefits are reduced as a family's income rises. A mother
will receive far more from welfare if she is single than if she has
an employed husband in the home. For many low-income couples,
marriage means a reduction in government assistance and an overall
decline in the couple's joint income. Marriage penalties occur in
many means-tested programs such as food stamps, public housing,
Medicaid, day care, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The
welfare system should be overhauled to reduce such
Now is the time for action. You and your Administration, by
launching the following specific initiatives, can help to
revitalize marriage in America.
- Recognize that the key to arresting the decline of
marriage in the U.S. is moral leadership. Use the White
House bully pulpit to reaffirm the value and importance of
marriage. You are uniquely suited to this task. Your strong
personal affirmation of values will prove critical in transforming
anti-marriage norms and in promoting a long-overdue renewal of
marriage in low-income communities.
- Use the bully pulpit to emphasize the historical
importance of marriage within the black community. Remind
the nation that even at the height of Jim Crow segregation prior to
World War II, nine out of ten black children were born to married
couples. Warn the nation that the same decline in marriage that
afflicted black communities a generation ago is now battering low-
and moderate-income white communities.
- Encourage public advertising campaigns on the
importance of marriage that are targeted to low-income
- Provide marriage education programs in high schools
with a high proportion of at-risk youth. Most low-income
girls strongly desire to have children. They also wish and intend
to be good mothers. These young women will be very receptive to
information that shows the positive effects of marriage on
long-term child outcomes. Such education could be funded under the
current "healthy marriage initiative" program at the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
- Make voluntary marriage education widely available to
interested couples in low-income communities. This could
be done by expanding the small "healthy marriage initiative"
currently operating in HHS. These programs may also provide job
training to participants, but that should not be their primary
- Provide marriage education referrals in Title X birth
control clinics. Government- funded Title X clinics
operate in nearly every county in the U.S., providing free or
subsidized birth control to over 4 million low-income adult women
each year. Many clients of these clinics go on to have children out
of wedlock within a short period. With 38 percent of children born
outside of marriage, it is obvious that a policy of merely
promoting birth control is highly ineffective in stemming the rise
of non-marital births. In addition to providing birth control,
Title X clinics should be required to offer referrals to education
in relationships, marriage, and life-planning skills to clients who
- Reduce the anti-marriage penalties in welfare.
The simplest way to accomplish this would be to increase the value
of the earned income tax credit (EITC) for married couples with
children; this could offset the anti-marriage penalties existing in
other programs such as food stamps, public housing, and
More than 40 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a member
of the White House staff under President Lyndon Johnson, warned of
the impending collapse of the black married family. He predicted
the social calamities that this collapse would bring. Moynihan was
right, but in subsequent decades, as the problem mushroomed, the
nation largely hid its head in the sand and ignored the
devastation. In the four decades since Moynihan's warning, the
government has done almost nothing to protect or restore
Today, the collapse of marriage about which Moynihan warned so
long ago is escalating rapidly across other racial groups. Forty
years of neglect and silence is enough. You now have a unique
opportunity and ability to halt this destructive trend and to take
the first decisive steps to restore marriage in our society.
Robert Rector is
Senior Research Fellow in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at
The Heritage Foundation.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the
American Dream (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), p. 334.
Robert E. Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., Patrick F. Fagan, and
Lauren R. Noyes, "Increasing Marriage Will Dramatically Reduce
Child Poverty," Heritage Foundation Center for Data
Analysis Report No. CDA03-06, May 20, 2003.
Kathryn Edin, Paula England, Emily Fitzgibbon Shafer, and Joanna
Reed, "Forming Fragile Families: Was the Baby Planned, Unplanned,
or In Between?" in Paula England and Kathryn Edin, eds.,
Unmarried Couples with Children (New York: Russell Sage
Publications, 2007), p. 32.
Rector et al., "Increasing Marriage Will Dramatically Reduce
Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 334.