First Things First

How Marriage Affects Poverty

In 2014, a group of liberals and conservatives began discussing inequality and family breakdown, poring over research and developing solutions to this problem.  In December 2015, they released their report on poverty and mobility called Opportunity, Responsibility and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream. 

“There are a gazillion reports from various think tanks and interests group on this topic, but this is the first time people from opposite sides discussed the facts about the nature of poverty and mobility today,” says report co-author Kay Hymowitz.  “This came at a time when it was very difficult for opposite sides to be talking, yet we met and communicated regularly for more than a year.  Through shared values and old-fashioned compromise, we defined the problem and offered a solution.”

The Problem

Childhood poverty (21.8 percent) is at almost the exact same level today as it was in 1970.  Broken down by race:

“Despite living in a richer country than we were in 1970, we have done very little to address child poverty,” Hymowitz says.  “One of the major reasons for this number staying so stubbornly high is children are growing up in very different circumstances than in the past.”

Consider the following information:

Unwed births increased dramatically between 1970 and 2010.

While the number of unwed births have somewhat stabilized recently, the rates remain very high.  In fact, unmarried mothers under the age of 30 account for almost 50 percent of the births.

“In 1970, the large majority of women at age 35 were married and living with children,” Hymowitz says.  “By 2010, only about 51 percent were married and living with children.  In 1970, only 9 percent of women were single mothers at 35.  Today, that number is 20.5 percent.  This is the number we want to study.”

According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of poor families with children breaks down like this:

“There is no way to talk about poverty at this point in history without addressing the breakdown of marriage,” says Hymowitz.

What else causes people to be poor? 

Low paying jobs and lack of jobs contribute to poverty.  When you look at the landscape of the labor force since 1980, some very interesting transitions have taken place.

“These trends affect each other,” Hymowitz says.  “Fewer men are working.  Those who are working are making less.  Women are making more and can manage, even if it’s not very well.  Not only are they earning more, they get a lot more in the way of benefits.

“When you add all the benefits, the official poverty rate comes down significantly from 47.6 percent to 24 percent.  The conditions in which people are deciding how to manage their domestic lives has changed significantly.  Couples see no reason to marry even if they have children.  Children are the ones who pay the price for the breakdown of marriage and stable family life.”

Can the children escape from poverty?

Research indicates that 43 percent of children who are born to poor parents will be poor themselves.  Both liberals and conservatives are especially concerned about this number.

Potential Solutions

“Three areas need to be addressed together:  work, education and family,” Hymowitz says.  “These three areas of life are what have to work pretty well for you to get ahead.  They interconnect.  We concluded that the 21st century reality demands that we address all three together at the same time.  You can’t pull one out and work solely on that one.  This is what set our group apart from other groups who have examined this issue.

“You can strengthen families, but without an education opportunity, children can’t fully benefit from the additional time and resources that two parents provide.  You can improve the workforce, but if the education system fails to provide the needed knowledge and skills to the next generation, then wages will remain low.  If the education system dramatically improves, but work opportunities are limited, then knowledge and skill-building will be less effective and less-rewarded.  If the education system improves but a greater number of children are growing up in unstable homes, it is highly likely they will struggle with discipline, persistence and achievement – especially so for boys.

“Growing up in a family where you cannot have the kind of stability that allows you to concentrate on your homework impacts your ability to do well in school.  This impacts your ability to find a job, which impacts your ability to provide for a family.  Education, work and family lay the foundation and reinforce each other.  If you take one of these components away, the entire thing collapses. We organized our thinking about solutions around three values:

“As we focused on our three values, we realized that in the U.S. at this time marriage offers the best chance for children to thrive,” Hymowitz says.



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