No, Marriage Is Not A Good Way To Fight Poverty

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)

In a speech marking the 50-year anniversary of the War on Poverty meant to offer up his ideas on how to address the problem today, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) laid out some new ideas, such as consolidating all federal anti-poverty programs into one agency and doing away with the Earned Income Tax Credit to instead give people “wage enhancement.” But he also offered up a very old idea: promoting marriage as a way to drastically reduce poverty:

Social factors also play a major role in denying opportunity. The truth is that the greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage. Fifty years ago today, when the War on Poverty was launched, 93 percent of children in the United States were born to married parents. By 2010, that number had plummeted to 60 percent. It shouldn’t surprise us that 71 percent of poor families, poor families with children, are families that are not headed by a married couple.

Unfortunately for him, though, there is new evidence that marriage is not in fact the panacea for poverty that some may think. Kristi Williams, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, did some research and found that more than two-thirds of single mothers who married ended up divorced by the time they were 35 to 44. On top of that, marrying and then later divorcing leaves them worse off economically than if they had just stayed unmarried. And marriage promotion campaigns don’t seem to help. An evaluation of programs in eight cities found that they didn’t lead to a lasting improvement in marriage rates, relationship quality, or children’s economic wellbeing. On the other hand, they “resulted in modest decreases in fathers’ financial support and parental involvement,” she writes.

Yet even the marriages that last don’t end up offering women much of a lifeline. Firstly, Williams and her fellow researchers found that the pool of potential partners in low-income communities doesn’t offer single mothers many chances for finding stable partners with economic resources. “The new unions that single mothers form tend to have low levels of relationship quality and high rates of instability,” she writes. Meanwhile, those who do marry and stay together still don’t see a lot of pay off. “[W]e found no physical or psychological advantages for the majority of adolescents born to a single mother whose mothers later married,” she reports.

So what might help them? Williams points to greater access to “comprehensive and early sex education and expansive and affordable access to birth control and family planning services” to help women avoid unwanted or mistimed births. Contraception can be a potent tool in helping women achieve a higher economic status. In one study, the majority of women reported that contraception allowed them to support themselves financially, complete their education, and either keep or get a job. And family planning doesn’t just benefit mothers: it benefits their future children. Research has found that it can increase their children’s likelihood of completing college and getting a job while boosting their wages decades later. But it can also be costly, which can limit access. One in three women have struggled to afford prescription birth control at some point, and more than half of young women experienced a time when they couldn’t afford to take it consistently.

But even with greater access to contraception, some women will still be single mothers. So what can we do to help them stay out of poverty? It turns out that while marriage may not offer much help, better policies could. American single mothers are worse off than their counterparts in 16 other high-income peer countries thanks to a thin social safety net. Single moms in this country have the highest rates of lacking health insurance, put up with the stingiest income support programs, have to wait longer than in other countries for early childhood education to begin, aren’t guaranteed paid time off of work for a new child or if they or their kids fall sick, and have a low rate of receiving child support. They also are much more likely to be employed in low wage work.

There are ways to solve the problems they face: universal preschool and more support for childcare could help them get to jobs and know their children have somewhere to be; raising the minimum wage would lift many out of poverty; guaranteed paid sick days would give them the ability to care for a child when he or she falls ill without losing wages or risking a job; paid family leave would mean they wouldn’t have to quit, go into debt, or go on public assistance when a new child arrives; welfare, or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, could be updated so that it reaches more families and the benefits could be enhanced so that they are worth more than in 1996.

If part of Rubio’s plan is to focus on helping single mothers survive financially, there’s little evidence to back up his idea that marriage promotion is the way to go. But we may have to wait a while for him to espouse greater access to family planning and a more robust social safety net.