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September 5, 2012

Heritage Report: Marriage Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty

Washington, D.C., Sept. 5, 2012 Nearly three out of four poor families with children in America are headed by single parents. When a child’s father is married to his mother, however, the probability of the child’s living in poverty drops by 82 percent.

The collapse of marriage, along with a dramatic rise in births to single women, is the most important cause of childhood poverty but government policy doesn’t reflect that reality, according to a special report released today by The Heritage Foundation.

Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” authored by Robert Rector, senior research fellow in domestic policy at the leading Washington think tank, is accompanied by a brief overview for each state with unique data and 14 charts per state. Heritage’s report arrives a week before the Census Bureau’s annual report on poverty.

“Policymakers on the state and national levels recognize that education reduces poverty, but they’re largely unaware that marriage is an equally strong anti-poverty weapon,” Rector says.

Marriage drops Poverty

In Florida, for example, white families headed by single parents are five times more likely to be poor than those headed by married couples. In Illinois, the poverty rate for a single mother with only a high school diploma is 39.5 percent, compared with 8 percent for a married couple with the same education.

While more Americans grow dependent on welfare, government fails to communicate the benefits of marriage even while it warns young people not to smoke, do drugs, have “unsafe” sex or drop out of school.

“We spend billions of dollars a year to educate low-income children, quite appropriately, and billions more for means-tested welfare aid for single mothers,” notes Rector, a nationally recognized authority on the U.S. welfare system. “But the nation does little or nothing to discourage births outside marriage or to encourage healthy marriage. In fact, the welfare system often sends the message that marriage has nothing to do with poverty.”

Rector calls this tragic. Well over a third of all single-parent families with children (37 percent) were poor in 2009. Only 6.8 percent of married couples with children were poor. And marriage reduces the probability of poverty for all racial groups, as the charts show:

  • Hispanic families headed by single parents are three times more likely to be poor.
  • Black families headed by single parents are five times more likely to be poor.
  • Among whites, single-parent families are seven times more likely to be poor.

The rate of births to unmarried women -- now four out of every 10 babies overall, five out of 10 for Hispanics, seven out of 10 for blacks -- has soared since the mid-1960s, when President Johnson launched the War on Poverty.

Births outside marriage mostly are to less-educated women – sadly, those with the least ability to support children, the Heritage report notes. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of births to women who are high school dropouts -- 65 percent -- are outside marriage. Among college graduates, it’s 8 percent.

Married couples with children are 76 percent less likely to be poor than single-parent families with the same level of education. In fact, Rector writes, a family headed by a single parent with a few years of college is more likely to be poor than a family headed by a married high school dropout.

The positive effects of married fathers extend well beyond income. Rector notes that a child raised in a home where Dad is married to Mom is much less likely to have emotional problems; be physically abused; smoke, drink or use drugs; do poorly in school; be expelled or drop out; and engage in violent, delinquent or criminal behavior.

Rector finds a silver lining: Most unmarried parents look favorably on marriage. “New policies should be developed that build on these attitudes,” he says, specifically:

  • Provide facts to at-risk youth about the value of marriage.
  • Connect low-income couples with community resources that teach skills they need to build lasting marriages before having children.
  • Reform the welfare system to encourage rather than discourage and penalize marriage.

View the entire research package at http:/www.heritage.org/childpoverty.

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