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Marriage is not as effective an anti-poverty strategy as you’ve been led to believe

Naomi Cahn, University of Virginia; Eleanor Brown, Fordham University, and June Carbone, University of Minnesota, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Brides.com predicts that 2024 will be the “year of the proposal” as engagements tick back up after a pandemic-driven slowdown.

Meanwhile, support for marriage has found new grist in recent books, including sociologist Brad Wilcox’s “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families and Save Civilization” and economist Melissa Kearney’s “The Two-Parent Privilege.”

Kearney’s book was hailed by economist Tyler Cowen as possibly “the most important economics and policy book of this year.” This is not because it treads new ground but because, as author Kay Hymowitz writes, it breaks the supposed “taboo about an honest accounting of family decline.”

These developments are good news for the marriage promotion movement, which for decades has claimed that marriage supports children’s well-being and combats poverty. The movement dates back at least to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Moynihan Report of 1965, which argued that family structure aggravated Black poverty.

Forty years after the Moynihan Report, George W. Bush-era programs such as the Healthy Marriage Initiative sought to enlist churches and other community groups in an effort to channel childbearing back into marriage. These initiatives continue today, with the federally subsidized Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood programs.

Still, nearly 30% of U.S. children live in single-parent homes today, compared with 10% in 1965.

 

We are law professors who have written extensively about family structure and poverty. We, and others, have found that there is almost no evidence that federal programs that promote marriage have made a difference in encouraging two-parent households. That’s in large part because they forgo effective solutions that directly address poverty for measures that embrace the culture wars.

Today’s marriage promoters claim that marriage should not be just for elites. The emergence of marriage as a marker of class, they believe, is a sign of societal dysfunction.

According to census data released in 2021, 9.5% of children living with two parents – and 7.5% with married parents – lived below the poverty level, compared with 31.7% of children living with a single parent.

Kearney’s argument comes down to: 1 + 1 = 2. Two parents have more resources, including money and time to spend with children, than one. She marshals extensive research designed to show that children from married couple families are more likely to graduate from high school, complete college and earn higher incomes as adults than the children of single parents.

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