A new study released just this week by The Heritage Foundation reveals that one factor alone can reduce by 82 percent the probability that a child lives in poverty – whether Mom and Dad are married to each other.
“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,” Robert Rector, senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Washington-based organization, said of the results.
“Since marital decline drives up child poverty and welfare dependence, and since the poor aspire to healthy marriage but lack the norms, understanding, and skills to achieve it, it is reasonable for government to take active steps to strengthen marriage,” the report’s summary said.
“Just as government discourages youth from dropping out of school, it should provide information that will help people to form and maintain healthy marriages and delay childbearing until they are married and economically stable. In particular, clarifying the severe shortcomings of the ‘child first, marriage later’ philosophy to potential parents in lower-income communities should be a priority.”
The federal government, in fact, does the opposite of what the study reveals would be best, by offering a multitude of programs designed specifically for the one-parent household.
Some $330 billion, for example, in 2011 went to single-parent families and “on average, the means-tested welfare costs for single parents with children amount to around $30,000 per household per year,” the report said.
“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,” the report said.
“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,” the report said.
“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,” said Rector. “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.”
The tragedy, he said, is the impact on families and children.
The study reveals that 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, and single-parent white families are seven times more likely to be poor.
That education doesn’t control the outcome is clear, because, “Married couples with children are 76 percent less likely to be poor than single-parent families with the same level of education.”
Startlingly, he noted, “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.”
And while the government spends millions warning young people not to smoke, do drugs, have “unsafe” sex or drop out of school, Rector said 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; or engage in violent, delinquent or criminal behavior.
The government should, he said, be providing facts to at-risk youth about the value of marriage, connecting low-income families with community resources to learn to build lasting marriages before having children and reform the welfare industry to encourage marriage.
The study has results posted for individual states, as well as national results. For example, 71 percent of poor families with children are not married, the percentage of children born to married parents has plunged from 97 percent in the 1930s to 59 percent today, and 72 percent of black non-Hispanic children are born out of wedlock. For Hispanic that number is 52 percent and for white non-Hispanic the number is 28 percent.
For poverty rates, only 3.2 percent of white non-Hispanic married families are poor, while 22 percent of non-married families are. For black families, 7 percent of married families are poor, while 36 percent of non-married families are. For Hispanic families, 13 percent of married families are poor, while 38 percent of non-married families are poor.
“To combat poverty, it is vital to strengthen marriage,, and to strengthen marriage, it is vital that at-risk populations be given a clear factual understanding of the benefits of marriage and the costs and consequences of the non-martial childbearing,” the study said.
“If society wishes to slow the growth of non-marital births and pregnancies, then the government must clearly communicate that, on average, having and raising children inside of marriage is more beneficial than having and raising a child out of marriage. Government should communicate not merely the desirability of delaying childbearing to an older age, but also the advantages of delaying childbearing until one has found a suitable long-term partner, formed a stable and healthy relationship, and, as a couple, made a sincere long-term commitment to each other through marriage.”
Importantly, the government should reduce the penalties against marriage in the welfare system, which are embedded now in food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, day care, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the study said.