“Put A Ring On It” Is Not An Anti-Poverty Program.
September 10, 2014by terrance
Conservatives say marriage is the “ultimate anti-poverty program,” and claim that most of our economic woes would vanish if more people got hitched. A new study suggests marriage barely makes a dent in poverty.
On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Sen. Marco Rubio (R, Florida) said: “The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.”
But it is important to try and understand why the children of married parents do better. Is it simply because they have, on average, higher family incomes? (Two earners are better than one, and one household is cheaper to run than two.) Or are two committed spouses better able to provide consistent parenting? Is it marriage itself that matters, or is marriage the visible expression of other factors, that are the true cause of different outcomes? And if so, which ones?
The reasons why children of married parents are more successful are complicated, but it Howard and Reeves find those benefits come from two principal sources.
The Income Effect
Howard and Reeves note that people with bachelor’s degrees are more likely to get married and stay married — and tend to earn more — than those with less education.
How important is income? Assuming that both parents work, marriage means more household income. Thus, conservatives conclude, marriage makes poverty less likely.
Children who grow up with married parents rank about 14 percent higher on income distribution as adults than those who don’t. Howard and Reeves controlled for family income throughout childhood and discovered that taking income out of the equation shrinks that “marriage gap” from 14 to 9 percent. Factoring in “parenting behavior, maternal education, race, and maternal age,” shrinks the gap even further — to just 4.5 percent.
The “marriage effect” is more of an income effect, Howard and Reeves write, “reflecting the benefits of having more money for children’s development, such as better nutrition, better schools, and safer neighborhoods.”
The Parent Effect
The parent effect is harder to measure. Howard and Reeves note that the same traits and characteristics that support marriage are likely to support the “emotional support and cognitive stimulation” children receive from their parents. Thus, people who commit to each other in marriage are more likely to be committed to raising their children. When parenting behavior is factored in, the “marriage gap” shrinks from 14 percent to 7.5 percent.
The parent effect is also probably an extension of the income effect. Not only do educated parents earn more, but they’re likely to have more time to be engaged with their children. They’re more likely than less educated, lower income parents to have jobs with regular hours and weekends off.
There’s a reason why educated people with higher incomes are more likely to get married and stay married. A 2012 Brookings Institute report revealed a strong correlation between income and marriage. Labor market changes — unemployment, wage stagnation, etc. — have led to a steep decline in marriage rates for low-income Americans. To borrow from 80s R&B singer Gwen Guthrie and reigning pop goddess Beyonce, “you’ve got to have a j-o-b” before you can “put a ring on it.”
Howard and Reeves recommend a public policy shift towards promoting parenting. They stop short of offering specific proposals beyond “policies to increase the incomes of unmarried parents, especially single parents, and to help parents to improve their parenting skills.”
Paid Sick Leave. About forty million workers lack paid sick leave. Guaranteeing paid sick leave would increase both family engagement and productivity — because sick workers who stay at home don’t infect their co-workers.
Paid Family Leave. No American workers are guaranteed paid maternal or paternal leave. Guaranteeing parents paid leave to care for and bond with their new additions promotes engaged parenting.
Marriage itself doesn’t do much to alleviate poverty, Creating a family-friendly economy can do that, plus a whole lot more.