Equity: Will Marriage Fix Poverty?

Jul 24, 2015

Several people commenting on my story last week: “Why Are Women Poor?” wrote that women in the story would not be in poverty if they had been married.

One was BethRS:  “Study after study has shown for year[s] that the best way out of poverty is to 1) get married and stay married, and 2) get an education. That's plainly evident from your examples and you entirely ignored it.”

I considered posing that argument in my story, and decided the point was tangential in what would eventually be a 2,600-word story. Apparently, I was mistaken about the interest level on this issue.

“Child poverty is an ongoing national concern, but few are aware that its principal cause is the absence of married fathers in the home. Marriage remains America’s strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it continues to decline,” The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector wrote a report for that that organization. (My repeated attempts over the past month to speak to someone at the Washington, D.C.-based foundation were unsuccessful.)  “As husbands disappear from the home, poverty and welfare dependence will increase, and children and parents will suffer as a result.”

Not so fast, says Wendy Pollack, who directs the Women’s Law & Policy Project  at the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. “Well, first of all women poor women marrying poor men doesn’t solve the problem of poverty. Certainly there are economies of scale … if there’s more than one paycheck, that helps. But it doesn’t solve the problem of poverty, and it certainly doesn’t transform women’s ability to success in the work place on their own.”

Meanwhile, Larry Joseph says, “There is not a simple causal relationship between family structure and poverty,” says Joseph, who is director of research for Voices for Illinois Children, an advocacy and data-collection group. “Single mothers often struggle financially, but poverty and economic insecurity contribute to both single parenthood and unstable marriages.”

He says, “There are some common misconceptions about single women raising children.” For instance, only about half of single mothers have never been married.  “The remainder are divorced, separated, or widowed. The poverty rate for divorced or separated mothers is lower than the rate for never-married mothers, but it is still substantially higher than the rate for single-father families.”

In a blog posted last year by the Council on Contemporary Families,  Kristi Williams, associate professor of sociology at the Ohio State University, wrote, “If growing up in a two-parent home is best for children, then adding a second parent to a single-mother home should at least partially address the problem. The 1996 welfare reform legislation and its subsequent reauthorization institutionalized this focus on marriage by allowing states to spend welfare funds on a range of marriage promotion efforts. The flaw in this argument is the assumption that all marriages are equally beneficial. In fact, however, the pool of potential marriage partners for single mothers in impoverished communities does not include many men with good prospects for becoming stable and helpful partners. Single mothers are especially likely to marry men who have children from other partnerships, who have few economic resources, who lack a high-school diploma, or who have been incarcerated or have substance abuse problems.’’