The most effective anti-poverty program is stable marriage.
Consider almost any important measurable outcome related to the long-term well-being of children: physical and emotional health, physical safety, educational achievement, employment, incarceration, substance abuse and sexual choices in adolescence. On average, children growing up in homes where their biological parents remain married enjoy superior outcomes according to the continuously mounting social science evidence.
Such findings look at averages, and so there are many who, through determination, beat these odds. But the evidence consistently shows poorer outcomes for the children of divorced parents, with the worst outcomes manifest in the children of women who never marry. Moreover, the relationship between cohabiting parents does not seem to substitute for protective benefits provided by marriage.
Of course, it is not just children who benefit from stable marriages. Another large body of scholarship documents the relationship between marriage and general happiness and well-being for adults.
Consequently, it is frightening to see America's family structure unravel before our eyes, particularly among the poor.
As documented in today's Deseret News by Mercedes White, low-income couples increasingly postpone marriage, even if they are not postponing having children.
More than half of births to American women under age 30 now occur outside of marriage. And there is an inverse relationship between a woman's educational attainment and nonmarital births. Recent studies show that by 2010, nearly 70 percent of births to women without a high-school diploma occurred outside of marriage. By comparison, 44 percent of births to high-school educated women occurred outside of marriage (up from 13 percent in 1982) and 6 percent of births to college-educated women were nonmarital.
Sorting the causes of this catastrophic collapse of the family among society's most vulnerable and identifying corresponding effective interventions is no simple exercise. Some blame general economic conditions, others point to policies that disincentives family formation and still others emphasize the role of destructive socio-cultural factors. All are likely at play.
Given what is at stake — the individual well-being of the rising generation and the collective well-being of our communities — it is critical that society seek a cure for the social cancer of family disintegration.
In addition to revitalizing the family-affirming role of faith, our own hypothesis is that much of the job of reclaiming marriage and family needs to take place within our culture. What would happen, for example, if the purveyors of media that weakens and degrades marital commitment could actually see the increased mental health problems, delinquency and substance abuse in the children of relationships that have been shattered by selfishness and infidelity?
If popular culture were genuinely concerned with protecting children from the worst aspects of poverty it would, instead of dwelling on sensuality and violence, actively promote attitudes and behaviors consistent with flourishing, stable marriage. It would honor and enhance our moral sense rather than beguile, shock and titillate.
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Stable families have proven to be the most effective method for nurturing children, teaching responsibility, refining adults, stabilizing society and ensuring prosperity. Families are not fool proof organizations, but even when they are less than perfect, they are far more responsive to individual needs than the best designed bureaucracy.
Our nation's educated elite seems to know this. In their own prosperous lives, stable traditional marriage and committed parenthood are still the dominant structures of family life. The time is long overdue for them to begin sharing this socio-cultural secret for acquiring and preserving wealth more effectively with the rest of society.