No, Traditional Marriage Won’t End Poverty

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At a fundraiser with Wall Street donors hosted by the Manhattan Institute on Monday, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) told the crowd that marriage is the best cure for poverty.

“A loving family taking care of their children in a traditional marriage will create the chance to break out of poverty far better, far better than any of the government programs that we can create,” Bush told the crowd.

Ryan agreed, saying, “The best way to turn from a vicious cycle of despair and learned hopelessness to a virtuous cycle of hope and flourishing is by embracing the attributes of friendship, accountability and love” and adding, “That’s how you fight poverty.”

Ryan recently released an audit of anti-poverty programs, went on a listening tour to areas with high levels of poverty, and held hearings on poverty (although wouldn’t let any poor people testify) ahead of releasing a report on anti-poverty programs later this year. Ryan and Bush aren’t the only conservatives to point to marriage as the cure for poverty; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called it “the greatest tool” to lift people out of poverty and a panel of conservatives at the Heritage Foundation marriage is the best way to lift women up in the economy.

But pushing poor people toward marriage won’t go very far toward poverty reduction. More than two-thirds of single mothers who marry end up divorced by the time they’re ages 35 to 44. That will actually leave them worse off financially than if they had stayed single. The marriages that do make it tend to be unstable and low quality.

And the government’s attempts at promoting marriage have shown pitiful results compared to the huge sums of money it spent. It spent $800 million on the Health Marriage Initiative but the national marriage rate continued to decline and the divorce rate remained unchanged, while state-level spending from the program didn’t have any significant association with marriage rates in those states. It spent $11,000 per couple in the Building Strong Families program but had no effect on whether couples got married or even stayed together, while those who enrolled were less likely to stick it out and the fathers were less likely to be involved with their children. And it spent $9,100 per couple in the Supporting Healthy Marriage program but it didn’t lead to more couples staying together or getting married and it had little impact on children’s well-being.

Meanwhile, despite Bush’s claim that marriage is more effective than policy at alleviating poverty, that also is not the case. While a disproportionate number of single mothers and their children live in poverty in the United States as compared to some other developed countries, that’s mostly due to differences in policy. Matt Bruenig at Demos found that family composition can’t account for the country’s high child poverty rates, but that our tax system and social safety net can. Without those public programs, the American poverty rate for children who live with single mothers looks similar to Finland, Norway, and Sweden; it’s after those are all taken into account that the difference emerges.

And policy choices leave America’s single mothers the worst off among 18 developed countries. They have to deal with the least generous income support system, the lack of paid family leave, a long wait for early childhood education to start, high rates of lacking insurance, and a low rate of child support receipt.