Editor’s note: The author is president of the Georgia Family Council, a nonprofit educational and research organization. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One out of every seven Americans was living in poverty in 2009. That number, revealed in the Census Bureau’s recently released annual report, is being attributed largely to one of the worst recessions of the past 70 years; and rightfully so.
But while the pain and hardship brought on by the recession should not be minimized, we should never lose sight of the principal and ongoing cause of child poverty in America – the absence of fathers in the home.
In a Heritage Foundation report titled, Marriage: America’s greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty, Robert Rector points out that the poverty rate for single parents with children in 2008 was 36.5 percent while the rate for married couples with children was 6.4 percent. That means that a child’s probability of living in poverty is reduced by roughly 80 percent if he (or she) is being raised by married parents.
Rector readily concedes that some of this is related to the fact that single parents tend to be less educated than married parents, but he points out, “[E]ven when married couples are compared to single parents with the same level of education, the married poverty rate will still be more than 75 percent lower.”
Tragically, the percentage of kids being raised by married couples is declining. In 1964, 93 percent of children born in the U.S. were born to married parents. Today, that number is less than 60 percent. “The flip side of the decline in marriage,” says Rector, “is the growth in the out-of-wedlock childbearing birthrate….[I]n the mid-1960’s, only 6 percent of children were born out- of-wedlock…In 2008, 40.6 percent of all children born in the U.S. were born outside of marriage.”
The 2008 census reveals that these issues are affecting all categories of race:
- In 2008, the poverty rate among married white couples was a hair over 3 percent, while the rate for non-married families was seven times higher;
- among married Hispanic families it was 12.8 percent, while the rate for non-married families was over 37.5 percent; and
- among black married couples, the poverty rate was 6.9 percent, as compared to 35.3 percent for non-married households.
Given the connection between single parenthood and poverty, unwed childbearing trends are especially ominous and are likely to render most anti-poverty programs useless in the fight against child poverty in the United States. Simply put, until we’re successful in halting the decline of marriage and increasing the percentage of kids being raised in married-parent homes, the percentage of children in poverty will only vary by small degrees, not by substantial margins.
It’s regrettable that arguments for marriage are often reduced to – or perceived as – self-righteous moralizing. The reality is that marriage matters because people matter. And we should care about marriage not just for the sake of marriage itself, but rather because we care about the wellbeing of our neighbor, and because we care about children.
Far too many are willing to surrender to the negative trends of father absence and simply accept the decline of marriage as modern social reality to which we need to adjust. Since when do we surrender to the causes of suffering?
“Tragically, on the issue of non-marital childbearing, a deliberate social silence has reigned for almost half a century,” laments Rector. “Low-income youth have never been told that marriage is beneficial; they have never been told that having a child outside of marriage is likely to have harmful consequences. In this context, it should be no surprise that non-marital childbearing has soared.”
Clearly more has to be done to get the message out that there are indisputable benefits of marrying before childbearing, and that doing so almost guarantees avoiding poverty. Government and communities have a lot to gain by making this widely known because the social cost of fragmented families is so high.
Single parent homes, because they increase the likelihood that children and mothers will live in poverty, drive up the cost of government programs to address their needs. Government spends billions of dollars a year on welfare programs, food stamps, day care and more to compensate for what a father, if he were present in the home, could provide. And there are the social costs that come because children in single parent homes are more likely to get into trouble with the law, abuse drugs and alcohol, have physical and psychological problems and struggle in school. Government has a strong incentive to see children born into two-parent homes.
Yet, while government has spent a lot of time advertising the health risks of smoking and staying in school – all worthwhile messages for sure, it says almost nothing about marriage. There need to be broad campaigns to advertise why delaying childbirth until after marriage is best. Campaigns that promote this to the general public, educate high school students and reach people who utilize government programs could change perceptions and behaviors for the better.
Communities have a role to play too, and thankfully some work is already underway in various communities throughout Georgia and the rest of the country. Our organization, Georgia Family Council, has been engaging leaders and citizens for years to help build local marriage and family initiatives aimed at reducing divorce and unwed childbearing. So far, we’re working with 12 communities across the state. We are spreading the word that strong marriages and healthy families matter, while we help local leaders create strategies to encourage both in their communities.
Being raised by married parents is the best way for children to avoid poverty. And children who avoid poverty while living in married households are in the best position to thrive in life. This is what the long-term health of our society depends on.