As Mitt Romney gears up for a third presidential run, he’s said that he wants to make fighting poverty one of the key pillars of his campaign. “The reason I’m Republican is because I want to help the poor, the middle class,” he said during a speech on Wednesday in Starkville, MS. “The rich in America, by the way, are fine.”
But when it came to laying out how he would tackle the problem, his solutions were sparse. As Phillip Rucker at the Washington Post reports, “he only offered a few broad ideas.” One of those is to, in Romney’s words, promote “the permanent commitment of marriage” for young people.
He referenced a Brooking Institution paper, likely a recent one, which he said shows that single parents are more likely to fall into poverty. It’s true that married parents have a lower poverty rate: 14 percent of children with married parents live in poverty, compared to 37 percent of those with unmarried parents and 41 percent with single parents. The Brookings research shows that adolescents raised by two parents are more likely than those raised by single ones to graduate high school with a good GPA, avoid a criminal record, and have a lower risk of teen pregnancy.
But that same paper also found that it isn’t being married per se; it’s that married parents tend to already be better off. Differences in single mothers’ and married mothers’ incomes explain a third of the difference among their children. Differences in parenting, not marriage, also explain another portion, leading the paper to conclude, “Promote Parenting, Not Marriage.” Even parenting doesn’t differ all that much, however; as Professor Sandra Hofferth writes in analyzing Census Bureau data, “the differences in…parenting behaviors between single parents, cohabiting unmarried parents, and married parents are comparatively small.”
Single mothers who get married don’t necessarily reap economic rewards. Their marriages tend to be more unstable and of lower quality. And more than two-thirds of single mothers who later marry end up divorced by the ages of 35 to 44, which leaves them worse off financially than if they had stayed single.
Comparing the United States to other countries exposes what may be behind the starkly different poverty rates for single and married mothers. A disproportionate number of American single moms and their kids live in poverty thanks not to family composition but to our tax system and social safety net. Otherwise, their rates would look the same as in countries with more generous benefits like Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
Even if marriage were the answer, however, the government has an incredibly poor track record of incentivizing people into it. The government spent $800 million on the Healthy Marriage Initiative only to see the decline in marriage continue and the divorce rate remain unchanged. The $11,000 spent per couple in the Building Strong Families program didn’t have an effect on whether they got married or even stayed together. Couples in the program were actually less likely to stick it out. It spent $9,100 per couple in the Supporting Healthy Marriage program, which didn’t spur more couples to stay together or get married.
Romney’s not the only potential Republican candidate pushing marriage as a solution to poverty. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called it the “greatest tool” for lifting people out of poverty. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said that traditional marriage works “far better, far better” than government programs in alleviating poverty. But Romney’s focus on poverty is particularly striking given that his 2012 agenda would have hit the poor hardest.