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Improving the Poverty Numbers Through Wedded Bliss?

Single mother

SOURCE: AP/Rich Pedroncelli

22-year-old single mother Nicole Range poses for a photo with her son, Demareau, in Sacramento, California, Monday, June 18, 2012.

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Last week the U.S. Census Bureau released new data on poverty in America—the verdict being that the numbers reflecting 15 percent of Americans living in poverty, while still unacceptably high, have stabilized after successive years of recession-related increases. Unfortunately, the release of the new numbers hasn’t been accompanied with a renewed and expansive national discussion about constructive ways of making serious progress in solving the nation’s poverty problem. Some conservatives (like those with the Heritage Foundation) continue to offer up overly simplistic solutions—mainly that more women need to get married. But putting the spotlight on marriage as a silver-bullet solution to poverty takes us in the wrong direction by placing the focus on a symptom rather than the larger disease of economic insecurity (or a lack of good jobs and wages).

There are significant reasons for focusing on jobs versus marriage in trying to solve poverty (even as marriage concerns are given the proper respect they deserve). Here are several approaches to take in addressing the problem of poverty:

  • Pursue common-sense options. What is more reasonable: saying to a single mother, “We have created a job opportunity that is stable and pays well”—a job that allows her to provide for herself and her family; or saying to that same single mother, “You should just get married,” and then wait for her to find a partner (if she doesn’t already have one), hope he proposes, and hope the groom is not also having problems finding a stable, well-paying job? Not only is the first option a more direct route to the goal of lifting this single mother and her family out of poverty, but it also involves less hoping and more doing.
  • Recognize that full-time, year-round work matters. Conservative marriage proponents accurately point out that single-mother families have higher poverty than married-couple families. Yet there is another important differential: The single-mother poverty rate of 40.9 percent dramatically drops to 13.4 percent for those single-mother families where the mother has full-time, year-round employment, suggesting the tremendous value of stable work for single mothers. In fact, this did help stabilize this year’s poverty numbers. Although real earnings dropped compared to last year, 2.2 million people (including 206,000 single mothers) moved into full-time, year-round work. Access to work supports such as stable and secure child care help women reach this goal of full-time, year-round employment.
  • Acknowledge that men have their own challenges. Some advocating the marriage solution fail to acknowledge the challenges facing low-income men that limit their ability to provide for a family or be viewed as desirable marriage partners. Men with limited education have experienced declining employment rates and wages over the last couple decades. For the subset of single mothers already attached to a partner, the economic benefits of marriage may not be overwhelmingly clear. According to 2011 Census data on families with children, 27 percent of male live-in partners were not working, although most were looking for work. A significant number, 39 percent, earned less than $15,000 a year. These daunting numbers not only reflect the challenges tied to the recession and the ongoing period of recovery but they also point to the employment challenges of men with limited education. Most men who are live-in partners, 67 percent, have a high school diploma or less and typically have higher rates of unemployment than men who choose to marry.

In short, considering marriage as a silver-bullet solution to poverty is simply not a sensible approach. It relies too heavily on the presumption that a partner will always be available and that all marriages will last until dependent children are grown. Also, when it comes to low-income couples, there is a higher degree of probability that male partners are struggling with employment and income issues that make it difficult for them to provide for their families. And finally, policymakers could go a long way toward achieving the poverty-reduction goal by simply taking the more direct route of helping more women and men secure full-time, year-round employment.

Despite these factors, marriage remains critically important and worthy of attention—not as a remedy but as a symptom of a much larger problem: the economic insecurity of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Declines in well-paying jobs, unemployment, growing income inequality, and persistent poverty influence couples not to marry while generating pressures and conflict on those who are married, leading to separations and divorce. It is indeed worthwhile to monitor and provide meaningful aid for this extraordinarily important symptom—the weakening and dividing of families—but to ultimately cure poverty, the nation must meaningfully address the problem of economic insecurity. Good job opportunities and quality wages will make young adults marriage ready, life ready, and increase their chances of success for the long haul.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.

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