W. Bradford Wilcox: Marriage for single mothers is not a panacea in war on poverty

By W. Bradford Wilcox

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Jan. 12 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

There are policy models out there that have succeeded in helping low-income Americans realize their dreams of stable and supportive marriages. We need to build on these models to realize the dreams of marriage and a stable, supportive family life.

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On Jan. 6, the Council for Contemporary Families (CCF) called marriage an “ineffective weapon in the War on Poverty” in a report issued in honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” After admitting that “children raised in single-parent homes fare worse on a wide range of outcomes … than children raised by two biological parents,” the report, written by sociologist Kristi Williams, went on to argue that post-1996 welfare reform efforts to push marriage are of no help in the battle against poverty.

The CCF report makes much of the following two facts:

(1) When single mothers marry in the wake of a nonmarital birth, neither they nor their children seem to benefit from marriage, especially if they marry someone besides the children’s father.

(2) Recent evaluations of federally funded programs to strengthen marriage indicate that most programs did not succeed in strengthening the quality and stability of family life among poor married and unmarried families.

Neither of these two facts is particularly surprising. Scholars have known for a long time that putting marriage after the baby carriage is risky — particularly when the marriage involves a man who is not the baby’s father. Deborah Roempke Graefe (Penn State) and Daniel Lichter (Cornell) pointed this out more than a decade ago and noted: “When the new husband is not the biological father, the presence of a child may strain economic resources and be a source of conflict (leading, for example, to arguments over visitation rights or resource allocation within the household).” So it’s not news that marriage is no panacea for poor single mothers.

Ironically, the CCF report just confirms wisdom recently articulated in the report Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America: namely, men, women and children are much more likely to enjoy a stable and supportive family life when they sequence marriage before parenthood. As Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution pointed out in their book "Creating an Opportunity Society," young adults who put education, work, marriage and parenthood in the right order — first finishing high school (or college), then getting a job, then marrying and then having a baby — face very low odds of poverty.

And while it is true that most of the federally funded programs designed to strengthen relationships among low-income couples with children have not achieved success, this is a common pattern for new policy initiatives (most of these programs are just a few years old). It usually takes some time for policymakers to figure out the best strategy to address a critical public policy challenge. For example, almost 50 years after Head Start was launched, evidence suggests the federal government still has not figured out how to make preschool effective for poor children — and yet, given preschool’s potential benefits, lawmakers remain determined to make the program work.

Similarly, federal, state and local governments should continue to experiment with a range of policy solutions to bridge the growing marriage divide between the rich and the poor in America. Why?

First, the marriage divide between the rich and the poor in America — where the educated and affluent now get and stay married, and the poor largely do not — is an important driver of child poverty and family inequality in America. Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan has shown that this divide has led in recent years to greater disparities for children in access to their parents’ time and money. In other words, children who do not have access to the incomes, kin and friends of two married parents who are stable are much more likely to end up poor.

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