Heritage News Forum: Marriage and child poverty

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 21, 2002


Hearing President Bush catch flak over, say, his desire to cut taxes or field a missile-defense system is hardly surprising. These tend to be polarizing issues that naturally split folks into one of two distinct camps, pro or con, with lots of passion on each side.

But you wouldn’t expect his proposal to spend $300 million promoting healthy marriages among unwed parents on welfare to stir much controversy.

Guess again. Marriage is a surprisingly effective way to reduce child poverty – as we’ll see in a moment – that many welfare-reform critics are quick to reject.

Some of them sound almost like converted conservatives doing it. The Legal Defense Fund of the National Organization for Women, for example, says efforts to build sound marriages “waste taxpayer dollars.”

Feminist scholar Stephanie Coontz says that marriage promotion shouldn’t be “a significant component of anti-poverty policy.” In American Prospect magazine, Robert Kuttner warns against “shotgun welfare betrothels.” Left-wing columnist Julianne Malveaux has what she considers a real solution: “Arming poor women with education is a certain prescription for poverty prevention; marriage is, at best, a risky bet.”

It turns out, though, that marriage is the far more “certain prescription.” A recent study conducted by my Heritage Foundation colleague, Robert Rector – along with Kirk Johnson, formerly of Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis – shows that sound marriages do far more to lift children out of poverty than making sure that mothers go further in school.

Using data from a ponderous government study called the “National Longitudinal Survey of Youth,” Rector and Johnson found that children raised by never-married mothers are nine times more likely to live in poverty than children raised by two parents in an intact marriage. Nearly 80 percent of long-term child poverty occurs in broken homes or homes in which parents never married.

It’s not that maternal education has no effect on child poverty. It’s just that education isn’t nearly as effective as marriage at keeping kids from being poor.

The poverty levels of children raised by never-married mothers remain high even if the mother has a high school or college degree, Rector and Johnson point out. For example, children living with never-married, college-educated mothers spend, on average, 28 percent of their lives in poverty. By contrast, the poverty rate of children raised in intact marriages by mothers with only a high school education is far lower – 7.8 percent.

Only those blinded by ideology can pretend that marriage plays no serious role in reducing child poverty, but some critics of welfare reform insist on wearing blinders. Not surprisingly, their refusal to “see the light” has confused people on both sides of the political aisle.

“There’s something puzzling about the reflexive hostility among some liberals to the not-so-shocking idea that for poor mothers, getting married might in some cases do more good than harm,” writes The Washington Post. “Why not find out whether helping mothers – and fathers – tackle the challenging task of getting and staying married could help families find their way out of poverty?”

Why not, indeed?

EDWIN FEULNER is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.