The evidence is clear. Nothing can end the cycle of poverty quite like a stable marriage. So why isn't this a higher national priority?
The decline of marriage in the United States has not been an equal-opportunity failure. College educated and affluent young people still tie the knot at the rate of about 84 percent, according to research by Charles Murray. Among those with the least education, however, the rate is only about 48 percent.
This is a difference that has profound implications for the nation’s future, and the maddening thing is that virtually no one in the nation’s halls of power is talking about it. The key to solving poverty is marriage, not some new social program.
The problem was brought into greater focus recently by research conducted by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. In a piece he wrote for The Atlantic, he reported on data that clearly shows how the children of parents in intact marriages are more likely to graduate from college and earn high wages, and that this is especially true among children from less-privileged homes.
As he wrote, “
young adults are at least 44 percent more likely to have graduated from college if they were raised by their married parents.” The difference is most profound among those whose mothers did not attend college.
In addition, the children of intact marriages aren’t likely to produce children out of wedlock. The research found they were about 40 percent less likely to do so than the children of broken homes or single parents. Here, too, the differences were most stark among those whose mothers did not graduate from college.
If the nation is looking for ways to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, it ought to find ways to emphasize the need for stable marriages. At the very least, politicians ought to begin talking about this.
Wilcox’ research adds to an already impressive amount of data suggesting the value of marriage in the lives of children. A recent Heritage Foundation fact sheet compiled some of this information. Children raised without married parents are 82 percent more likely to live in low-income homes than those from married households. They are much more likely to end up in trouble as teenagers, whether from inappropriate sexual behavior or substance abuse. They tend to suffer more psychological and emotional problems and perform worse in school.
In short, they are set up for a lifetime of living far below their potential, doomed by circumstances over which they had no control.
There are, of course, exceptions — those who rise above their challenges and over-achieve. But these are statistical outliers. The overall results of broken homes are tragic and filled with costs to society.
Exacerbating this problem is a trend toward deliberate single motherhood. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of single mothers today never were married, which compares to only 4 percent in 1960. In those days, single mothers almost always had undergone divorce, were widowed or separated from their spouse. While there is little evidence to suggest differences in outcomes based on the reasons parents are single, the evidence of how poorly children from such homes tend to perform makes it astounding to consider anyone would choose such an arrangement.
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Added to this is research on the value fathers bring to households. Here again, research by Wilcox, together with Kathleen Kovner Kline, has found that both boys and girls tend to behave better when raised by fathers who are engaged in the family. Such marriages also have an effect on the fathers, making them more responsible as nurturers and as citizens.
It’s clear that no government program can replace the altar of marriage. And yet governments are doomed to pay dearly in many ways for the lack of stable marriages. Given that approximately 40 percent of all American children now are born out of wedlock, this issue deserves a far higher place on the national agenda than it currently occupies.