The Nation's Pulse

Get Married, Young Woman (and Man)

It's the best way to fight poverty.

By 1.20.14

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It’s an argument that shouldn’t be controversial, but is: Marriage breakdown is a major cause of modern poverty. So writes former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer in a Wall Street Journal column that has sent anti-traditional family liberals into a tizzy.

Given the sociological evidence, Fleischer’s conclusion should surprise no one. Social scientists, of both liberal and conservative stripes, have long maintained that stable marriages and families increase economic prosperity, particularly for women and the poor. Too often, those results are suppressed or ignored.

But as Fleischer argues, if we’re truly interested in reducing poverty and increasing incomes, we should be interested in marriage. More often than not, the difference between rich and poor in America boils down to the matrimony question:

"Marriage inequality" should be at the center of any discussion of why some Americans prosper and others don't. According to Census Bureau information analyzed by the Beverly LaHaye Institute, among families headed by two married parents in 2012, just 7.5% lived in poverty. By contrast, when families are headed by a single mother the poverty level jumps to 33.9%. ...

Attitudes toward marriage and having children have changed in America over the past 50 years, and low-income children and their mothers are the ones who are paying the price.

Marriage—or, more specifically, the lack thereof—is a particular problem for the less educated demographic. In Coming Apart, libertarian thinker Charles Murray goes so far as to argue that, over the last half century, “marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes.”

In 1960, both the lower income and higher income segments of white America were mostly married: 94 percent for the wealthier and 84 percent for the poorer. Today, 84 percent of wealthier Americans are married, but only 48 percent of the poorer.

Why is that startling divide so often ignored? Murray asks the same question:

I know no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties.

Progressives have a motive for ignoring these findings. Anything that bolsters the traditional family (er, that is, the comfortable concentration camp) at the expense of big government must be suppressed.

What about conservatives? One reason that we shy away from the research is the bifurcation between social and economic issues. We want to avoid so-called “bedroom” concerns—marriage laws and abortion, to name two—in favor of the more cerebral economic questions.

Those of us in the free-market movement want to reduce regulations and lower taxes. We believe that doing so will lead to expanded prosperity for men, women, and children. But when it comes to encouraging marriage—an institution that undeniably expands a human being’s economic horizons—we tend to be silent, fearing the verbal reprisals of leftist bullies. Or we fear that too much talk of marriage will alienate the coveted independent vote.

If we truly want to see economic prosperity and lift Americans out of poverty into the middle class, though, we must advocate for marriage.

Besides which, the most convincing, powerful arguments are on our side. Liberals, who tend to be uncomfortable around anything that smacks of the traditional family, can’t escape the facts surrounding the benefits of marriage. Those who try stumble well short of the mark.

For instance, in a response to Fleischer’s column, The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg offers us a textbook example of cognitive dissonance. She argues that Bush-era policies to promote marriage were colossal failures of big government. Simultaneously, she writes that a more robust, European-themed welfare state is the solution to single parenthood. (Big government under Bush was bad; big government under Obama is good.)

Apparently, progressives can’t abide a normal, two-parent, heterosexual family. Something odd needs to be thrown in there to ease their fears of a one-man, one-woman relationship; something adequately progressive.

Liberals also exist in a parallel universe in which President Johnson’s Great Society initiative actually worked. We have five decades of proof that a robust welfare state does more harm than good. The solution? More robustness.

A problem so complex as poverty can’t be solved through a single mechanism, of course, but sociological evidence shows that marriage is a critical part of the solution.

In the end, marriage remains a personal decision that can’t (and shouldn’t) be forced. But government policies play an important role in encouraging matrimony—and today, such policies largely discourage marriage. That hurts poor women and their children disproportionately.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.