Can Marriage Save Single Mothers From Poverty?

Sep 13, 2012
Originally published on September 13, 2012 12:05 pm

Newly released census figures show a long-standing and glaring contrast: A third of families headed by single mothers are in poverty, and they are four times more likely than married-couple families to be poor. The disparity is on the rise, and as the number of single mothers grows, analysts are debating if more marriages could mean less poverty.

For many conservatives, the answer is simple: Promote marriages as a balm for poverty. Last week, the Heritage Foundation issued a report called "Marriage: America's Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty." In his run for the Republican presidential ticket, Rick Santorum proclaimed three simple steps to stay out of poverty: "Work. Graduate from high school. And get married before you have children."

The calculation came from Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who notes that more than 40 percent of all U.S. births are now outside marriage.

"There's no question in my mind that the change in family structure in the U.S., meaning the growth of single-parent families, has played a role in increasing poverty and inequality," Sawhill says.

Of course, she says, increased poverty and inequality have also been greatly exacerbated by the recession.

"But it is a lot harder if you only have one earner in the family to weather a downturn in the economy," Sawhill says.

Actually increasing marriage, or preventing divorce, is no simple feat. The Bush administration spent nearly $1 billion on marriage education classes for lower-income couples. The Obama administration continued them on a smaller scale. The effort has widely been deemed a failure.

The state of Florida asked social psychologist Benjamin Karney of UCLA to look into the classes' effectiveness. He says they aimed to help with things like communication and understanding.

"But lower-income groups are significantly more likely to say having a job is more important for marriage," Karney says. "Having money in the bank is more important for marriage. And the problems that they have are not relational problems, they're economic problems."

Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College, says women know they'll be better off if they marry a man who earns a good wage, but they may not have that option.

"In many low-income communities, there are not many men like that available," she says. "Poverty is as often a cause of unwed motherhood as it is a result."

Coontz says some women choose not to marry, even if a man is already working hard. A big problem, she says, is that many men today are getting paid less than their fathers were paid at the same age.

"By 2007, and that's before the start of the recession, the average employed guy with a high school degree made almost $4 less an hour, in constant dollars, than his counterpart in 1979," Coontz says.

Economic stress is also strongly linked to divorce, which is now far more common among lower-income couples than the college educated.

Both Coontz and Sawhill say the problem transcends the ranks of the poor: A growing number of single moms has some college education.

"This is not an inner-city phenomenon anymore, which many people seem to assume it is," Sawhill says. "This is now a mainstream phenomenon and getting stronger every year."

Even in the middle class, Sawhill says, parenting alone is tough, and such women are at greater risk of falling into poverty.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

New census figures show that nearly a third of families headed by a single mother live in poverty. In fact, they're four times more likely to be poor than married couple families. It's a longstanding disparity that's led a number of analysts and politicians to tout marriage as a solution to curbing poverty. Others say it's not so simple, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Just last week, the Heritage Foundation put out a report called "Marriage: America's Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty." And if you followed the Republican presidential contest, it was hard to miss former candidate Rick Santorum proclaim three simple steps to stay out of poverty.

RICK SANTORUM: Work, graduate from high school, and get married before you have children. Those three things...

LUDDEN: That calculation came from Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who notes that more than 40 percent of all U.S. births are now outside marriage.

ISABEL SAWHILL: There is no question in my mind that the change in family structure in the U.S., meaning the growth of single parent families, has played a role in increasing poverty and inequality.

LUDDEN: Of course, Sawhill says, that's also been greatly exacerbated by the recession.

SAWHILL: But it is a lot harder if you only have one earner in the family to weather a downturn in the economy.

LUDDEN: So the temptation has been to promote marriage. The Bush administration tried hard, spending nearly a billion dollars in federal and state money on marriage education classes for lower income couples. The Obama administration continued them on a smaller scale. But the effort's been widely deemed a failure.

Benjamin Karney of UCLA was asked by the state of Florida to look into the program's effectiveness. He says the class is aimed to help with things like communication and understanding.

BENJAMIN KARNEY: But lower income groups are significantly more likely to say having a job is more important for marriage. Having money in the bank is more important for marriage. And the problems that they have are not relational problems, they're economic problems. Well, no surprise.

LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz, of The Evergreen State College says women know they'll be much better off if they marry a man with a good wage.

STEPHANIE COONTZ: But in many low income communities there are not many men like that available. So poverty is as often a cause of unwed motherhood as it is a result.

LUDDEN: In other words, women choose not to marry, sometimes even if a man is already working hard. A big problem, says Coontz, many men today are paid less than their dads made at the same age.

COONTZ: By 2007, and that's before the start of the recession, the average employed guy with a high school degree made almost four dollars less an hour, in constant dollars, than his counterpart in 1979.

LUDDEN: And economic stress is strongly linked to divorce, which is now far more common among lower income couples than the college educated. Meantime, both Coontz and the Brookings Institution's Sawhill say the decline of marriage is transcending the ranks of the poor. Sawhill points out a growing number of single mothers do have some college education.

SAWHILL: This is not, you know, an inner city phenomenon anymore, which many people seem to assume it is. This is now a mainstream phenomenon and getting stronger every year.

LUDDEN: Yet even in the middle class, parenting alone is tough. And such women, she says, are at greater risk of falling into poverty.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.