Higher marriage rates among the poor would benefit poor adults themselves, their children, and the nation. Although I do not support coercive policies to achieve higher marriage rates, I do favor marriage promotion programs conducted by community-based organizations such as churches and other nonprofit civic groups. The activities these groups should sponsor include counseling, marriage education, job assistance, parenting, anger control, avoiding domestic violence, and money management.
There is no dispute that marriage has declined more among the poor and minorities than among the middle class—and that nonmarital births, now the major cause of single-parent families, are rampant among minority groups. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, children living in single-parent families are about five times as likely to live in poverty. There’s also a high probability they’ll drop out of school, get arrested, be involved in teen pregnancy themselves, have more mental health problems, and be less likely to be employed or in school as young adults. Indeed, parents themselves are physically and psychologically better off when married than single.
Research shows that around 80% of couples who have babies outside marriage say they are in love and most of them believe that there’s a good chance they will get married some day, according to a 2005 report published in Mathematica Policy Research. So if both the children and adults are better off and if the couples say they hope to be married one day, why not help them? As long as the programs are not coercive and are delivered by community-based agencies, what’s the problem? If we can learn how to help couples who want to marry, the payoff to them, their children, and society is potentially enormous.
Marriage promotion policies will not solve the poverty problem. While financial incentives or relationship-skills programs may help some couples, there is no evidence that government policies can substantially increase marriage rates. And many single mothers would be poor even if they married the fathers of their children, because both the mother and father have limited economic prospects.
A misplaced focus on marriage promotion threatens to distract us from making the most of some important good news: More single mothers are working and keeping their families out of poverty, and we have many proven policies to support their efforts. The Earned Income Tax Credit and child care and health-care subsidies help make work pay a reasonable return. Unemployment Insurance reforms, paid sick leave, and family leave would make it possible for more mothers to reasonably support their families. Policies that both require and enable nonresident fathers to do their part are also key.
If nothing else had changed, declines in marriage and other changes in family structure would have led to about a two percentage-point increase in poverty between 1969 and 2006, a substantial increase. However, increases in mothers’ work and earnings over the same period reduced poverty, reversing about half the effect of family changes.
If the concern is the number of children living in poverty, the public should know that many will end up living with only one parent no matter what government might do to encourage marriage. Public policies must accept this reality, and focus on proven approaches to improve single-parent families’ economic security by making work pay a reasonable return, encouraging nonresident fathers to do their part, and helping single mothers manage the challenges of being both primary parents and workers.
Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the