Will marriage solve the poverty crisis in America?
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio thinks it will.
“For millions of Americans in poverty, the American dream doesn’t seem reachable, and that’s unacceptable” Rubio said in a video released to his YouTube channel on Jan. 5. The video, which was made in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s delaration of the War on Poverty, caused quite a stir because of Rubio’s pronouncement that it’s time to “declare big government’s War on Poverty a failure.”
Even more partisan tensions have arisen with Rubio’s most recent suggestion, made during a speech given on Wednesday, the actual fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, where he declared that “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.”
“Marriage is great. And it is true that a household with two adult members in it is much less likely to be poor than a household with one adult member,” Slate’s Matthew Yglesias wrote Wednesday in response to Rubio’s speech. “But even though conservatives say this a lot, I'm sometimes not sure that conservatives understand exactly why this is."
According to Yglesias, marriage itself isn’t the key to curbing expenses, it’s whatever facilitates in “splitting the bill,” whether that's getting married or finding a roommate.
“What's magical about marriage isn't really what leads to the poverty reduction,” he concluded.
As Yglesias also points out, Rubio’s statement is indeed backed up by statistics. As Derek Thompson wrote on Jan. 6, marriage is correlated with reducing poverty, but Thompson seems to side mostly with Yglesias when it comes to the prospect of government attempts at incentivizing marriage.
“It's not realistically (or desirably) in Washington's power to force parents to get married and stay together,” he argued. “But raising employment during a slack economy is precisely within its power.”
Rubio also proposed what he called "wage subsidies" for those in low-paying jobs, something he hopes will calm both the left and the right on the ongoing minimum wage debate.
Though some liberal commentors, such as The Daily Beast's Jamelle Bouie and Mother Jones' Kevin Drum, are excited by the idea of the right accepting wage subsidies, they're also skeptical.
"I'll be pretty surprised if it doesn't end up turning into nothing more than an excuse to cut spending on poverty," Drum wrote Thursday.
"Unlike most of the anti-poverty proposals that come out of the GOP, this could work," Bouie also wrote Wednesday in reaction to Rubio's speech. "Although it could also shift federal dollars from single parents with children — who are more likely to be poor — to their married counterparts, which could increase the overall rate of child poverty."
One of the few prominent conservatives to weigh in on Rubio's remarks was Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Rector wasn't terribly pleased with the senator's idea for subsidized wages, telling BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins it is "the exact wrong way to produce conservative policies." He agrees, however, that finding ways to incentivize marriage is key.
"The war on poverty has been a complete catastrophe because welfare discourages work and sabotages marriage,” he told Coppins. “And what you need to do is fix those problems."
The difficulty of fighting poverty has been, and will likely continue to be a central issue for debate during the 2014 primaries, and possibly even into the presidential election in 2016. What's clear is that it's an issue both sides feel the need to address, and Rubio's proposals have acted as a catalyst for the discussion.