Married Fathers: Secret Weapon to Fight Child Poverty

Robert Rector Contributor
Font Size:

Pssst. Want to know the big secret about fathers this Father’s Day?

Married fathers are America’s strongest weapon in reducing childhood poverty. Put another way, the absence of a husband and father at home is the greatest cause of poverty for children today.

The poverty rate for single parents with children is 35.6 percent, the latest U.S Census numbers show. For married couples with children, the poverty rate is only 6.4 percent.

Being raised in a family where Dad is married to Mom reduces a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent. True, single parents tend to have less education than married couples. But when we compare married couples to single parents with the same education levels, the poverty rate for married couples is still 70 percent lower.

Being married has the same effect in reducing poverty as adding five to six years to a parent’s education.

Unfortunately, marriage is rapidly declining in American society. In 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, 93 percent of the nation’s children were born to married parents. Today it’s only 59 percent.

A total of 1.7 million children were born outside marriage in 2008, the latest year for which Census numbers are available.

That’s more than four out of every 10 babies. It’s over half of all Hispanic babies. And a staggering seven out of 10 among blacks.

Most of these out-of-wedlock births were to women who face the hardest time going it alone as parents: They’re young adults with a high school education or less. College-educated women rarely have children outside marriage.

The United States is steadily separating into a two-caste system, with marriage and education as the dividing line: In the high-income segment of the population, children are raised by married parents with a college education; in the lower-income segment, children are raised by single parents with a high school diploma at best.

Single parents, most of them mothers, account for almost three of every four poor families with children. Last year, government provided over $300 billion in means-tested welfare to single parents.

We all know that a husband and father gives his family more than a paycheck. But research fleshes out the picture, showing how children raised by married parents tend to do substantially better in life.

Children raised by single parents are more likely to:

  • Be physically abused.
  • Develop emotional and behavioral problems.
  • Smoke, drink and use drugs.
  • Act aggressively and turn violent, delinquent or criminal.
  • Be suspended or expelled from school, and eventually drop out.

Many of these negative behaviors are associated with the lower education and greater poverty of single mothers. But, in most cases, improvements in child well-being linked with marriage persist even after researchers adjust for differences in education and income.

Much of the conventional wisdom about marriage, families and children is just wrong.  For example, the mainstream news media generally equate out-of-wedlock childbearing with “teen pregnancy.” But in reality, only 8 percent of the 1.7 million births outside marriage were to girls under 18.

The Left insists that poor women become pregnant outside marriage because they lack knowledge of, and access to, birth control. Research shows otherwise: Virtually no non-marital pregnancies in low-income communities occur for that reason. Most women who have a baby out of wedlock strongly desire children. To some extent, they intended to become pregnant, or didn’t seriously try to avoid it.

Some say poor single mothers don’t marry the fathers of their children because those men don’t have jobs and are “non-marriageable.” It’s one more piece of conventional wisdom that isn’t true.

Nearly all unmarried fathers are employed at the time their children are born. And they generally have higher earnings than the mothers. In fact, if poor single mothers were married to the fathers of their children, two-thirds immediately would be lifted out of poverty.

So why has marriage declined to the point of collapse in lower-income neighborhoods? Part of the answer is welfare. The welfare system largely was designed to serve as a substitute for a husband in the home. Most welfare programs actually penalize low-income couples for marrying.

A second reason: Among lower-income Americans, norms have changed. Less-educated men and women continue to esteem marriage and desire to get married eventually. But they no longer think it’s important to be married before having children.

Have a child first, then look around for a suitable spouse. That’s the prevailing practice.

Women who follow this recipe for disaster usually end up in chronic poverty, on welfare and trapped in a series of fractious cohabitations with uncommitted men.  And the men who follow it tend to end up with children they rarely see, born to women they don’t love – and often can’t stand.

The idea of “child first, marriage later” rarely leads to successful marriages and families. Rather, it’s a roadmap to misery for men, women and children – especially children.

Given the effectiveness of marriage in reducing poverty, one would think the welfare industry and “progressive” politicians would encourage marriage. Guess again. Encouraging marriage is a major felony in the creed of political correctness.

The liberal establishment regards marriage as a mere red-state superstition, a medieval institution that progress has left behind. That’s why in welfare offices from Juneau to Tallahassee, you never hear marriage mentioned, let alone promoted.

It’s also why, in the mainstream media this Father’s Day weekend, the truth remains hidden: Married fathers are our greatest weapon against poverty.

Robert Rector is a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation (heritate.org). This post is based on his new paper, Married Fathers: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.