Column: Is the road out of poverty down the aisle? Yes and noKANSAS CITY, Mo. — Single ladies, you probably first heard the financial benefits of marriage preached incessantly by your mother. Mom had your best interests at heart. But be careful if you begin hearing that message from people with a political agenda.
By: Mary Sanchez, Tribune Media Services, Worthington Daily Globe
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Single ladies, you probably first heard the financial benefits of marriage preached incessantly by your mother.
Mom had your best interests at heart. But be careful if you begin hearing that message from people with a political agenda.
“The collapse of marriage is the major cause of poverty,” proclaimed the Heritage Foundation’s on the eve of the annual release of new U.S. Census data on poverty.
That’s a line the conservative movement has been pushing for decades. Unfortunately, the shocking new statistics add a ready exclamation point to this old contention.
A staggering 43.6 million Americans, more than 14 percent of the population, were poor in 2009, according to the new figures. Nearly 4 million more Americans sank into poverty in 2009.This is the third year the numbers have risen, with the largest number of Americans in poverty since the government began tracking poverty in 1959.
For the nation’s most vulnerable — children — the poverty rate has reached 20.7 percent. (In reality, it may be higher now, given that the data are for 2009.) And more than half of the 15.4 million poor children live with single mothers.
You can see how these dots readily get connected.
Wedded bliss, Heritage contends, should become “America’s No. 1 Weapon Against Childhood Poverty.”
But conservatives who take this line are a little confused about the proverbial chicken and egg, according to Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families.
“Poor women are much less likely to have a pool of employable men to choose from,” she said.
Moreover, while divorce rates have declined since the 1980s, they have not for people in economic stress, Coontz said. “The destabilizing impact of economic stress on marriages has increased in the past 30 years,” she said.
Marrying won’t do poor women much good if they simply wind up divorced with children, or supporting the man, too.
Here is a key point: Poverty is caused by economic instability, not by a lack of marriage. Improving people’s economic status increases the likelihood they will marry, not necessarily the other way around. Better pay and economic opportunity and greater educational attainment also tend to decrease the number of children women bear.
The government can accomplish far more economic stabilization by promoting jobs and education than it can by engaging in “marriage promotion,” as proponents like to call their pet policies.
Let me be clear: Marriage is a good thing. Children with married parents do benefit — if the marriage is emotionally healthy, and free from domestic violence, addictions and emotional trauma. Children of married couples tend to have higher standards of living than children of single-parent households. But, regardless of what think tanks or columnists say on the matter, moms and dads don’t need anybody to tell them that money troubles can undercut their relationship.
There is nothing wrong with promoting marriage, but there is danger in promoting the belief that merely hitching people up in matrimony will solve this country’s poverty problem. It can be just another pretext for gutting social programs aimed at relieving the poor.
We’ve been down this route before. As an outgrowth of welfare reform, the Bush administration poured money into such programs. An assessment released earlier this year of one aimed at unwed new mothers and their children’s fathers found that it failed to increase their marriage rates or help their relationships.
Barack Obama has his own take, also backing plans that promote responsible fatherhood, but only in addition to focusing on jobs for underemployed men (making them more marriage-ready in a woman’s eyes) and education for women.
Men have suffered the majority of job losses in the recession, meaning that increasing women’s earning ability is essential to stabilizing families in ways not seen in past generations.
People tend not to marry if they are financially unstable. They tend to break up due to poor relationship skills. Work on both these factors, and we might just see our poverty rate move in the right direction.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.