Nearly half of all children who live in America with a single mother also live in poverty. This is a particularly troubling statistic when paired alongside the demographic trend that the number of single mothers in America has been rising. This same seismic population shift also goes by another name: the much-discussed decline in marriage.
Taken together, these patterns have yielded a logic that underpins much of how we think about aiding the poor 50 years into America's "war on poverty:" Children are worse off and more likely to be poor when their parents aren't married. Therefore, if we encourage more low-income adults to wed, families will be economically stronger and more emotionally stable. Best of all, poverty will decline.
In fact, this thinking forms the premise in the first five lines of the 1996 welfare reform law:
The Congress makes the following findings:(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.(2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successfulsociety which promotes the interests of children.(3) Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhoodis integral to successful child rearing and the well-being ofchildren.
That law provides federal funding (still worth $150 million a year today) to programs promoting healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood. Over the years, they've taken the form of PSAs extolling the virtues of marriage and high-school marriage-ed classes and relationship skills training.
There are two problems, however, with the basic logic here. It casts poverty as the result of a collapse in family values, not as the product of complex structural economic and social factors. And it's wrong.
"All of these marriage-promotion policies were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the link between poverty and marriage," says Kristi Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University and a research associate at the Council on Contemporary Families. "They’re assuming people are poor because they don’t marry, when I would say there's much more evidence that it’s poverty that deters people from marriage."
Fractured family structures don't cause poverty. Poverty causes these family structures. Reduce poverty through more direct means, and we might actually reverse the retreat of marriage along the way.
"We know marriage has a wide range of benefits, particularly for raising children," Williams says. "And it's not unreasonable to think that it would be nice if all children could enjoy these benefits. The problem is that there’s no evidence that the kind of marriages that poor, single parents enter into will have these same benefits."
In her own research and elsewhere, studies have overwhelmingly found very few benefits to marriage for single mothers and their children. Williams has looked at more than 30 years worth of national data and found almost no physical or mental health benefits to children of single mothers who later married. Another national study found that nearly two-thirds of single mothers who did later marry were divorced by the time they were 35-44. A study of the marriage-promotion programs funded through welfare reform also found few long-term results.
Why would the institution of marriage be so much less beneficial for these families than for higher-income parents and their children? For one thing, the families of low-income single mothers differ from higher-income, two-parent families in so many ways that have nothing to do with marriage. These families must also contend with everything else that comes from (and contributes to) poverty, from higher unemployment and incarceration rates, to lower access to good education and quality jobs.
"It’s clear that married-couple families are better off economically, because there are potentially two workers in the family," says Margaret Simms, a fellow at the Urban Institute and director of its Low-Income Working Families Project. "But you cannot solve poverty by just marrying people if – jointly – they cannot generate sufficient income to raise a family above poverty."
The other problem low-income single mothers face is simply a shortage of men to marry who might bring stability and financial support to a family. Today, the Urban Institute is releasing in-depth research, sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services, looking at who these men are.
The research focuses on men aged 18-44, who have no more than a high school diploma, and who live in families making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line (that's a mere $23,890 a year). Across the U.S., 16.5 million men fit this description, and they are almost entirely located in urban areas. Based on American Community Survey Data from 2008-2010, the marriage rate among these men nationwide was 39 percent, with a low of 25 percent for low-income black men. Among higher-income men in this same age group, the marriage rate is 62 percent.
By the same data, more than a quarter of these men have dropped out of high school, decreasing their employment prospects and lifetime earning potential. Their unemployment rates are astronomical (it's 34.8 percent for the low-income black men). They're significantly more likely to be incarcerated. Half of low-income, working-age men without college degrees also have no health insurance.
Each of these disadvantages compounds the others: Unemployed men are more likely to come in contact with law enforcement, and men who've been incarcerated are less likely to be able to get a job. Earlier research also suggests that the average family's income falls by 22 percent in the first year a father is in prison.
Marriage-skills training can do little about any of that.
If we turned our attention away from such strategies, several other policies would be much more effective in improving the lives of single mothers and their children. Research says that unintended births are particularly detrimental, suggesting that we'd do better to fund and advocate family planning than marriage values.
For single women who do have children (intended or not), policies like paid family leave and high-quality public childcare would enable them to remain in the labor force and increase their earnings. But most of the research on the effectiveness of these strategies doesn't come from model initiatives in the U.S. It comes from comparable countries overseas, where poverty rates for single mothers are dramatically lower than in the U.S.
None of this means that marriage doesn't matter. But it matters in context.
"When you ask single mothers what they think about marriage, they overwhelmingly desire it and revere it in some ways," Williams says. "But in a very realistic way, they’re always aware of these barriers to having a beneficial union. And they worry that if they do get married, they’ll be worse off. And they may be right about that."
Top image of a mother and child in a homeless shelter in Charlotte, North Carolina: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters