Abstract: Child poverty is an ongoing national concern, but few
are aware that its principal cause is the absence of married fathers in the
home. Marriage remains America’s strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it
continues to decline. As husbands disappear from the home, poverty and
welfare dependence will increase, and children and parents will suffer as a
result. Since marital decline drives up child poverty and welfare
dependence, and since the poor aspire to healthy marriage but lack the
norms, understanding, and skills to achieve it, it is reasonable for
government to take active steps to strengthen marriage. Just as government
discourages youth from dropping out of school, it should provide information
that will help people to form and maintain healthy marriages and delay
childbearing until they are married and economically stable. In particular,
clarifying the severe shortcomings of the “child first, marriage later”
philosophy to potential parents in lower-income communities should be a
Child poverty is an ongoing national concern, but few are aware of its
principal cause: the absence of married fathers in the home. According to
the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the
United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with
children was 6.8 percent. Being raised in a married family reduced a
child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.
Some of this difference in poverty is due to the fact that single parents
tend to have less education than married couples, but even when married
couples are compared to single parents with the same level of education, the
married poverty rate will still be more than 75 percent lower. Marriage is a
powerful weapon in fighting poverty. In fact, being married has the same
effect in reducing poverty that adding five to six years to a parent’s
level of education has.
Decline in Marriage and Growth in Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing
Regrettably, marriage is declining rapidly in the U.S. The current
decline is unusual. As Chart 2 shows, throughout most of the 20th century,
marital childbearing was the overwhelming norm in the United States. Nearly
all children were born to married couples.
For example, when President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in
1964, 93 percent of children born in the United States were born to married
parents. Since that time, births within marriage have declined sharply. In
2010, only 59 percent of all births in the nation occurred to married
The flip side of the decline in marriage is the growth in the
out-of-wedlock childbearing birth rate, meaning the percentage of births
that occur to women who are not married when the child is born.
As Chart 3 shows, throughout most of U.S. history, out-of-wedlock
childbearing was rare. When the War on Poverty began in the mid-1960s, only
6 percent of children were born out of wedlock. Over the next four and a
half decades, the number rose rapidly. In 2010, 40.8 percent of all children
born in the U.S. were born outside of marriage.
Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing Not the Same as Teen Pregnancy
Out-of-wedlock births are often confused with teen pregnancy and births.
In fact, few out-of-wedlock births occur to teenagers. As Chart 4 shows, of
all out-of-wedlock births in the United States in 2008 only 7.7 percent
occurred to girls under age 18. Three-quarters occurred to young adult women
between the ages of 19 and 29.
The decline in marriage and growth in out-of-wedlock births is not a teenage
issue; it is the result of a breakdown in relationships between young adult
men and women.
A Two-Caste Society
In 2008, 1.72 million children were born outside of marriage in the
Most of these births occurred to women who will have the hardest time going
it alone as parents: young adult women with a high school degree or less. As
Chart 5 shows, nearly two-thirds of births to women who were high school
dropouts occurred outside of marriage. Among women who had only a high
school degree, well over half of all births were out of wedlock. By
contrast, among women with at least a college degree, only 8 percent of
births were out of wedlock, and 92 percent of births occurred to married
The U.S. is steadily separating into a two-caste system with marriage and
education as the dividing line. In the high-income third of the population,
children are raised by married parents with a college education; in the
bottom-income third, children are raised by single parents with a high
school degree or less.
Unwed Childbearing, Single Parenthood, and Child Poverty
The rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing and the increase in single
parenthood are major causes of high levels of child poverty. Since the early
1960s, single-parent families have roughly tripled as a share of all
families with children. As noted, in the U.S. in 2009, single parents were
nearly six times more likely to be poor than were married couples.
Not surprisingly, single-parent families make up the overwhelming
majority of all poor families with children in the U.S. Overall,
single-parent families comprise one-third of all families with children, but
as Chart 6 shows, 71 percent of poor families with children are headed by
single parents. By contrast, 73 percent of all non-poor families with
children are headed by married couples.
Both Marriage and Education Reduce Poverty
The poverty rate among married couples is dramatically lower than the
poverty rate among single-headed households, even when the married couple is
compared to single parents with the same level of education. For example, as
Chart 7 shows, the poverty rate for a single mother with only a high school
degree is 38.8 percent, but the poverty rate for a married-couple family
headed by an individual who is only a high school graduate is 8.9 percent:
Marriage drops the odds of being poor by 76 percent.
Being married has roughly the same effect in reducing poverty that adding
five to six years to a parent’s education has. Interestingly, on average,
high school dropouts who are married have a far lower poverty rate than do
single parents with one or two years of college.
Welfare Costs of Single-Parent Families
The federal government operates over 80 means-tested welfare programs
that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and targeted social services
to poor and low-income persons.
In fiscal year 2011, federal and state governments spent over $450 billion
on means-tested welfare for low-income families with children. Roughly
three-quarters of this welfare assistance, or $330 billion, went to
single-parent families. Most non-marital births are currently paid for by
the taxpayers through the Medicaid system, and a wide variety of welfare
assistance will continue to be given to the mother and child for nearly two
decades after the child is born. On average, the means-tested welfare costs
for single parents with children amount to around $30,000 per household per
Racial Differences in Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing
Out-of-wedlock childbearing varies considerably by race and ethnicity. To
understand this, it is important to understand the difference between an out-of-wedlock
birth rate and the out-of-wedlock birth share for a particular
racial or ethnic group.
The out-of-wedlock birth rate for a particular group equals the
total number of out-of-wedlock births to mothers of that group divided by
all births to the group in the same year. Thus, if 50 babies were born
outside of marriage to Hispanic mothers in a given year and total births to
all Hispanic mothers (both married and non-married) in the same year were
100, the out-of-wedlock birth rate for Hispanics would be 50 divided by 100,
or 50 percent.
Chart 8 shows the out-of-wedlock birth rates for different racial and
ethnic groups in 2008. The out-of-wedlock birth rate for the entire
population was 40.6 percent. Among white non-Hispanic women, the
out-of-wedlock birth rate was 28.6 percent; among Hispanics, it was 52.5
percent; and among blacks, it was 72.3 percent.
By contrast, the out-of-wedlock birth share equals the total
number of babies born to non-married mothers of a particular racial or
ethnic group divided by the total number of babies born outside of marriage
for all racial and ethnic groups. Thus, if 50 babies were born outside of
marriage to Hispanic mothers in a given year and total out-of wedlock births
to mothers from all racial and ethnic groups were 150, the out-of-wedlock
birth share for Hispanics would be 50 divided by 150, or 33.3 percent.
Chart 9 shows the out-of-wedlock birth shares for different racial and
Although black and Hispanic women are more likely to give birth out of
wedlock than are white non-Hispanic women because non-Hispanic whites are
far more numerous in the overall population, the greatest number (or
plurality) of out-of-wedlock births still occurs to that group. Of all
non-marital births in the U.S., some 38 percent were to non-Hispanic whites,
32 percent were to Hispanics, and 26 percent were to black non-Hispanic
Growth in Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing Among Blacks and Whites.
Historically, the black out-of-wedlock childbearing rate has always been
somewhat higher than the white rate; however, through much of the 20th
century, the rates for both groups were comparatively low. For example, as
Chart 10 shows, 2 percent of white children and 14 percent of black children
born in 1940 were born out of wedlock.
These rates remained relatively low until the onset of Lyndon Johnson’s
War on Poverty in the early 1960s. Then the black out-of-wedlock birth rate
skyrocketed, doubling in little more than a decade from 24.5 percent in 1964
to 50.3 percent in 1976. It continued to rise rapidly, reaching 70.7 percent
in 1994. Over the next decade, it declined slightly but then began to rise
again, reaching 72.3 percent in 2008.
The white out-of-wedlock birth rate followed a similar but less dramatic
pattern. It remained almost unchanged at around 2 percent between 1930 and
1960 and then began a slow but steady rise in the 1960s that accelerated in
the 1980s, reaching 20 percent by 1990. It slowed in the 1990s but then
resumed its upward rise. In recent years, it has been increasing at a rate
of 1 percent per annum, reaching 28.6 percent in 2008.
Marriage and Poverty Among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. Marriage
is associated with lower rates of poverty separately for whites, blacks, and
Hispanics. Within each racial and ethnic group, the poverty rate for married
couples is substantially lower than the poverty rate for non-married
families of the same race or ethnicity. For example, as Chart 11 shows, in
- Among non-Hispanic white married couples, the poverty rate was 3.2
percent, while the rate for non-married white families was also seven
times higher at 22.0 percent.
- Among Hispanic married families, the poverty rate was 13.2 percent,
while the poverty rate among non-married families was three times higher
at 37.9 percent.
- Among black married couples, the poverty rate was 7.0 percent, while
the rate for non-married black families was seven times higher at 35.6
Corroborating Data from the Fragile Families Survey
The Census data presented so far demonstrate that married couples have
dramatically lower poverty rates than single parents. These substantial
differences in poverty remain even when married couples are compared to
single parents of the same race and level of education. The pattern is
almost exactly the same in all 50 states.
However, in the Census comparisons, the married couples and single
parents are obviously different (albeit similar) persons. It is therefore
possible that much of the difference in poverty between married families and
single-parent families might be due to hidden differences between married
and single parents as individuals rather than to marriage per se. For
example, it is possible that unmarried fathers might have substantially
lower earnings than married fathers with the same racial and educational
backgrounds. If this were the case, then marriage, for these men, would have
a reduced anti-poverty effect.
Fortunately, we have other direct data on poverty and unmarried parents
that corroborate the Census analysis. These data are provided by the Fragile
Families and Child Well-being Survey conducted jointly by Princeton and
The Fragile Families survey is a representative national sample of parents
at the time of a child’s birth, with a heavy emphasis on lower-income
unmarried couples. The survey is unusual in collecting information not only
on single mothers, but on non-married fathers as well, including
(critically) the actual employment and earnings of the father in the year
prior to birth.
Because the Fragile Families Survey reports both the mothers’ and
fathers’ earnings, it is simple to calculate the poverty rate if the
non-married mothers remain single and if each unmarried mother married her
child’s father (thereby pooling both parents’ income into a joint family
income). The Fragile Families data show that if unmarried mothers remain
single, over half (56 percent) will be poor. (This high level of poverty
will persist for years: half of all unwed mothers will be poor five years
after the child is born.) 
By contrast, if the single mothers marry the actual biological fathers of
their children, only 18 percent would remain poor.
Thus, marriage would reduce the expected poverty rate of the children by
It is important to note that these results are based on the actual
earnings of the biological fathers of the children and not on assumed or
hypothetical earnings. Moreover, the non-married fathers in the sample are
relatively young. Over time, their earnings will increase and the poverty
rate for the married couples will decline farther.
The Lifelong Positive Effects of Fathers
Census data and the Fragile Families survey show that marriage can be
extremely effective in reducing child poverty. But the positive effects of
married fathers are not limited to income alone. Children raised by married
parents have substantially better life outcomes compared to similar children
raised in single-parent homes.
When compared to children in intact married homes, children raised by
single parents are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems; be
physically abused; smoke, drink, and use drugs; be aggressive; engage in
violent, delinquent, and criminal behavior; have poor school performance; be
expelled from school; and drop out of high school.
Many of these negative outcomes are associated with the higher poverty rates
of single mothers. In many cases, however, the improvements in child
well-being that are associated with marriage persist even after adjusting
for differences in family income. This indicates that the father brings more
to his home than just a paycheck.
The effect of married fathers on child outcomes can be quite pronounced.
For example, examination of families with the same race and same parental
education shows that, when compared to intact married families, children
from single-parent homes are:
- More than twice as likely to be arrested for a juvenile crime;
- Twice as likely to be treated for emotional and behavioral problems;
- Roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school;
- A third more likely to drop out before completing high school.
The effects of being raised in a single-parent home continue into
adulthood. Comparing families of the same race and similar incomes, children
from broken and single-parent homes are three times more likely to end up in
jail by the time they reach age 30 than are children raised in intact
married families. 
Compared to girls raised in similar married families, girls from
single-parent homes are more than twice as likely to have a child without
being married, thereby repeating the negative cycle for another generation.
Finally, the decline of marriage generates poverty in future generations.
Children living in single-parent homes are 50 percent more likely to
experience poverty as adults when compared to children from intact married
homes. This intergenerational poverty effect persists even after adjusting
for the original differences in family income and poverty during childhood.
Understanding the Cultural Context of Non-Marital Pregnancy and
Clearly, the rise in unwed childbearing and the decline in marriage play
a strong role in promoting child poverty and other social ills. Dealing with
these issues will require an understanding of the social context of
non-marital pregnancy and childbearing. The best source of information on
this topic is Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Mothers Put Motherhood Before
Marriage by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas.
Edin, professor of public policy at Harvard, is the nation’s most
distinguished researcher on low-income single mothers; her findings overturn
much conventional wisdom about “unintended” pregnancy, out-of wedlock
childbearing, and low-income single parents. In popular perception,
out-of-wedlock childbearing occurs as a result of accidental pregnancies
among teenage girls who lack access to or knowledge about birth control.
This perception is completely inaccurate.
In reality, unwed births rarely involve teenage girls, are almost never
caused by a lack of access to birth control, and generally are not the
result of purely accidental pregnancies.
- As noted previously, only 8 percent of non-marital births occur to
girls under 18. Non-marital births and pregnancies are phenomena that
mainly involve young adult men and women.
- Research on lower-income women who have become pregnant outside of
marriage (either as minors or adults) reveals that virtually none of
these out-of-wedlock pregnancies occurred because of a lack of knowledge
about and access to birth control.
- Out-of-wedlock births are generally not the result of purely
accidental pregnancies. In fact, most women who become pregnant and give
birth out of wedlock strongly desire children. Their pregnancies are
partially intended or at least not seriously avoided.
Most Unwed Mothers Strongly Desire Children
Kathryn Edin explains that children born out of wedlock are “seldom
conceived by explicit design, yet are rarely a pure accident either.”
Young single mothers typically “describe their pregnancies as ‘not
exactly planned’ yet ‘not exactly avoided’.… [O]nly a few were using
any form of contraception at all when their ‘unplanned’ child was
But this lack of contraceptive use was not due to a lack of knowledge about
or access to contraceptives.
The overwhelming majority of lower-income women who have children out of
wedlock strongly desire to have children. In fact, having children is
generally perceived as the most important and fulfilling thing in their
lives, giving their lives purpose and meaning. According to Edin, low-income
non-married mothers view “children [as] the best of what life offers.”
Whether planned or not, children “are nearly always viewed as a gift, not
a liability—a source of both joy and fulfillment.”
Low-income single mothers “credit their children for virtually all that
they see as positive in their lives”
and rely on their children “to bring validation, purpose, companionship,
and order to their often chaotic lives.”
Most low-income non-married mothers see children not merely as desirable,
but as a “necessity.”
Without children, their lives are hollow and chaotic; having children is a
“heroic” choice that rescues them from emptiness. For many, parenthood
is the point “at which they can really start living.”
Although most of these young women believe they should wait until they
are somewhat older before having children, this belief is weak in comparison
to the very strong positive feeling about motherhood in general. Given this
emotional context, it should not be surprising that any plans to delay
pregnancy are carried out haphazardly or not at all.
The Role of Marriage
Critically, almost none of the lower-income women who have a child out of
wedlock feel that it is important to be married before having children.
Although roughly half of non-married mothers were cohabiting with the father
at the time of birth (nearly 75 percent were in some sort of romantic
relationship with the father), these relationships are usually of short
duration and unstable. Mutual understanding and commitment are lacking, and
although the couples usually think and speak favorably about marriage, most
tend to drift apart after the child is born.
However, low-income non-married parents are not hostile to marriage as an
institution or a life goal. Ironically, most highly esteem marriage and, in
fact, tend to overidealize it. Most low-income young women have traditional
family goals; they hope to have a husband, children, a minivan, and a house
in the suburbs “with a white picket fence.”
Tragically, few have a life plan that will enable them to realize their
A major obstacle is that most low-income women plan to marry after
having children, not before. Their life plan is the exact opposite of the
normal sequence in the upper middle class. In the upper middle class, men
and women still follow the traditional pattern: A man and woman become
attracted to each other; a relationship develops; the couple assess each
other and at some point deliberately choose to become lifetime partners;
emotional bonds deepen; they marry and after a few years have children.
In the lowest-income third of the U.S. population, this traditional
sequence of family formation and childbearing is now explicitly reversed.
Women first have children and then seek to find or build a stable
relationship that will eventually lead to marriage. Typically, low-income
single mothers do not see marriage either as an important part of
childrearing or as an important element of financial security or upward
social mobility. Instead, marriage is seen as a symbolic event that should
occur later in adult life. Marriage is regarded as an important ceremony
that will celebrate one’s eventual arrival in the middle class rather than
as a vital pathway that leads upward to the attainment of middle-class
Low-income single mothers “believe that marriage, not children, is what
requires the years of careful planning and preparation and [that]
childbearing is something that happens along the way.”
While conceiving a child with a man you have known only a few months is not
a problem, most non-married mothers believe they should get to know a man
steadily for four or five years before marrying him.
The idea that you should carefully select a suitable partner and diligently
build a successful relationship with him before conceiving a child is a
In many communities, the pattern of children first and (hopefully)
marriage later is so entrenched that couples have difficulty understanding
an alternative; but as a means for building long-term loving relationships
and nurturing homes for children, this pattern is a disaster. While
low-income young women earnestly dream of having children, a husband, and a
house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, they have no practical plan
to make this dream a reality. Sadly, their choice to have children before
marriage and before forming a stable committed relationship with the
child’s father usually leads to the opposite outcome, dooming mothers and
children to lives of poverty and struggle.
In summary, the strong desire to have children coupled with the belief
that it is not important to be married before having children explains the
dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing in lower-income communities.
While most non-marital pregnancies are not deliberately planned, they are
also not seriously avoided. The unfortunate reality is that children are
usually born haphazardly to couples in unstable, uncommitted relationships
that fall apart within a few years after their children are born.
Unwed Parents Drift Apart
Although most non-married parents aspire to remain together and
eventually to marry, they generally lack the skill and understanding that
are needed to build enduring relationships. Often, a woman will conceive a
child with a man well before she has determined whether she regards him as a
suitable lifetime partner and before the couple has made serious commitments
to one another.
Trying to decide whether you want to spend the rest of your life with a
partner after you have had a baby with him (or her) rather than before is a
recipe for disaster. Frequently, couples will seek to resolve fundamental
issues such as sexual fidelity only after a child is born. They fail to
understand that these issues should have been resolved at the beginning of
the relationship, not in the maternity ward.
Even though they aspire to remain together, most unmarried-parent couples
also fail to understand the role of commitment to successful relationships.
In the real world, all relationships have stressful and troubled periods;
successful couples have an enduring commitment to each other that enables
them to weather difficult periods and emerge with stronger, happier
relationships. In our culture, such strong commitment to a relationship
rarely exists outside of marriage. Because they fail to understand the
importance of commitment, most unmarried-parent couples tend to fall apart
when they hit the difficult periods that are inevitable in all
Do Unwed Fathers Lack Earnings?
Some argue that encouraging marriage in lower-income communities is
irrelevant because the fathers do not earn enough to contribute
significantly to the support of the mother and child. This is not true in
most cases. Eight out of 10 unmarried fathers were employed at the time of
their child’s birth.
Ironically, given the degree to which the earnings capacity of non-married
fathers is generally maligned, these men actually earn more than the mothers
in the period prior to the child’s birth. If the fathers are economically
unprepared to support a family, the mothers are even less prepared.
Most non-married fathers have sufficient earnings to help their children
escape from poverty. As noted, if women who had children out of wedlock were
married to the actual father of their child, their probability of living in
poverty would be cut by two-thirds.
In fact, over 60 percent of fathers who have children outside of marriage
earned enough at the time of their child’s birth to support their
potential family with an income above the poverty level even if the mother
did not work at all. If the unmarried father and mother married and the
mother worked part-time, the typical family would have an income above 150
percent of poverty, or roughly $35,000 per year. In addition, at the time of
birth, the fathers are young; their wages can be expected to increase over
time and are likely to rise faster if they became married and committed to a
Is There a Shortage of Marriageable Men?
A related argument is that single mothers do not marry because the
fathers of their children are non-marriageable. This is a stunning argument
given the fact that 40 percent of all children are now born outside of
marriage. Are policymakers to believe that 40 percent of young adult men in
America are non-marriageable? In reality, while some of the fathers are not
suitable marriage partners, most would be.
Three-quarters of non-married fathers are still romantically involved
with the mother at the time of birth. Among these men, alcohol, drug, and
physical abuse are infrequent.
While many of the men have potential problems, so do many of the non-married
mothers. In most cases, both the men and women would be better off if they
were older, more mature, and in a stable, committed marriage before
But, this is an argument for encouraging stronger, more mature
relationships before conception, not for writing off the men in general. The
decline in marriage in low-income communities stems from changing social
norms and from a welfare system that for decades has penalized marriage, not
from a lack of millions of marriageable men.
Unwed Fathers and Marriage
Like unwed mothers, most non-married fathers express positive attitudes
toward marriage. Many of these young men were raised in fatherless homes and
often state that they do not wish the same fate for their own children.
But like unwed mothers, these men also attach little importance to being
married before having children. They frequently fantasize about having
close, long-term, stable relationships with their children and the child’s
mother even without marriage. In fact, such an outcome is extremely
unlikely. Without marriage, the relationship with the mother is very likely
to collapse; over time, the fathers will have little contact with their
children and are likely to reach their thirties with lonely and difficult
Although unwed fathers tend to view the idea of marriage positively at
the time of their child’s birth, they are also aware that marriage will
entail restraint and sacrifice. A married husband must relinquish sexual
freedom and shoulder heavy financial responsibilities. Becoming a husband
means growing up, making a transition from prolonged semi-adolescence to
true male adulthood. Like many other men, young unwed fathers view this
transition with uncertainty and ambivalence.
Historically, society established strong norms and values that supported
and encouraged young men in this transition. The role of married father and
breadwinner was seen as essential and important. Men who stepped into the
role of husband were esteemed in their communities.
Today, the historic norms and values concerning marriage and fatherhood
have all but disappeared in low-income neighborhoods. In the larger society,
opinion leaders treat unwed fathers as socially marginal, an unmarriageable
residue of little social or economic significance. To the extent that the
fathers are remembered at all, they are seen as largely useless, capable of
little more than modest child support payments.
The collapse of norms concerning marriage and having children has been a
disaster. In marriage, men will usually devote a very large part of their
earnings to support wives and children; they will be reluctant to make this
financial sacrifice unless society tells them it is vital and strongly
encourages their embrace of responsibility. Since society no longer demands,
expects, or encourages low-income young men to become married fathers, it
should be no surprise that these young men experience difficulty in making
the transition to married adulthood.
The problem is compounded by the fact that most unwed mothers do not
seriously plan to be married to the fathers of their children.
Without social encouragement or positive role models, many unwed fathers
drift through disordered and empty lives. This is a tragedy for the fathers,
the mothers, and their children.
The Analogy to Dropping Out of School
Since marriage appears to be in the long-term interests of mothers,
fathers, and children, why do lower-income parents fail to marry? How has
the peculiar ethos of “child first, marriage later” evolved in
low-income neighborhoods? These are complex questions. The best analogy is
to dropping out of school. Completing high school is clearly in the
long-term economic interests of individuals. Despite this, hundreds of
thousands drop out each year before obtaining a high school diploma.
People drop out of school and have children without marriage for similar
reasons. For many, finishing school is difficult: it involves having a
strong future orientation, delaying gratification, forgoing short-term
income, and sticking to educational tasks that may seem unpleasant and
boring. Many are unable or unwilling to stick to the difficult path and
finish school; they drop out despite the long-term negative consequences.
Similarly, delaying childbearing until marriage entails postponing the
pleasures of having a child, carefully selecting a long-term partner,
exercising restraint by being sexually faithful to that partner, and
developing and maintaining a committed relationship. These are not simple
tasks. In low-income communities, having a child without marrying is the
common choice, the path of least resistance. Many choose this path while
failing to appreciate the long-term negative consequences.
However, dropping out of school and having a child outside of marriage
have one crucial difference. Everyone in our society is told incessantly
from childhood that dropping out of school will harm one’s future; despite
this constant refrain, a great many still drop out each year. In bold
contrast, young people in low-income communities are never told that having
a child outside of marriage will have negative consequences. They are never
told that marriage has beneficial effects. The schools, the welfare system,
the health care system, public authorities, and the media all remain
scrupulously silent on the subject. In the face of this pervasive social
silence, it should be no surprise that out-of-wedlock childbearing has
become the norm in so many communities.
Imagine how high the school dropout rate might be if, for 50 years,
lower-income youth were never told that failing to finish school would harm
their future. Tragically, on the issue of non-marital childbearing, a
deliberate social silence has reigned for almost half a century. Low-income
youth have never been told that marriage is beneficial; they have never been
told that having a child outside of marriage is likely to have harmful
consequences. In this context, it should be no surprise that non-marital
childbearing has soared.
Foundations of a New Policy
As long as the current social silence concerning the benefits of marriage
and the harm of out-of-wedlock childbearing persists, marriage will continue
to erode in low-income communities. To combat poverty, it is vital to
strengthen marriage, and to strengthen marriage, it is vital that at-risk
populations be given a clear factual understanding of the benefits of
marriage and the costs and consequences of non-marital childbearing.
To develop this understanding, government and society should establish a
broad campaign of public education in low-income areas. This campaign should
be similar in scope to current efforts to convince youth of the importance
of staying in school or to inform the public about the health risks of
smoking. While the costs of such an effort would be small, its impact could
If society wishes to slow the growth of non-marital births and
pregnancies, then the government must clearly communicate that, on average,
having and raising children inside of marriage is more beneficial than
having and raising a child outside of marriage. Government should
communicate not merely the desirability of delaying childbearing to an older
age, but also the advantages of delaying childbearing until one has found a
suitable long-term partner, formed a stable and healthy relationship, and,
as a couple, made a sincere long-term commitment to each other through
The new pro-marriage message should address the deepest concerns of
lower-income young women. Above all else, these women desire to be mothers,
but they also desire to be good mothers. The well-being and life prospects
of the children they will bring into the world are very important to them.
Thus, government should inform lower-income men and women of the positive
effects of healthy marriage on the well-being of children. It could then
further address the benefits of healthy marriage for adults and society.
While there is a voluminous literature on these topics, such information is
utterly unavailable in lower-income communities.
Going further, the new policy should communicate practical skills in
planning children’s births in a manner to meet long-term life goals. It
should teach practical skills in selecting suitable partners, in building
stable and healthy relationships, and in understanding the role of
commitment to sustaining healthy marriages. Given the high esteem with which
low-income women and men regard marriage as an institution, this message
should fall on a receptive audience, although the idea of delaying
childbearing until after marriage will initially be a real shock.
Even for those on the left whose only concern is that low-income women
complete more education before having children out of wedlock, this policy
should prove to be advantageous. Urging young women to select partners
carefully, build strong relationships, and marry before having children
would (if it has any effect) result in a necessary delay in the age of
childbearing in lower-income communities.
Policies to Communicate the Truth About Marriage
In order to communicate a new pro-marriage message and strengthen
marriage in low-income communities, government should undertake the
following specific policies.
- Encourage public advertising campaigns on the importance of
marriage that are targeted to low-income communities. These
campaigns should communicate the value of marriage to adults, children,
- Provide marriage education programs in high schools with a high
proportion of at-risk youth. As noted, most low-income girls
strongly desire to have children. They also wish and intend to be good
mothers. These young women will be very receptive to information that
shows the positive effects of marriage on long-term child outcomes.
- Strengthen federal abstinence education programs that provide
critical information on the value of marriage to adults, children, and
society. These programs already provide some information on the
value of marriage to lower-income youth. This message needs to be
expanded, not reduced.
- Make voluntary marriage education widely available to interested
couples in low-income communities. This could be done by expanding
the small “healthy marriage initiative” currently operating in the
U.S. Department of Health and human Services. These programs may also
provide job training to participants, but that should not be their
- Provide marriage education materials and referrals in Title X birth
control clinics. Government-funded Title X clinics operate in nearly
every county in the U.S., providing free or subsidized birth control to
over 4 million low-income adult women each year. Many clients of these
clinics go on to have children out of wedlock within a short period.
With 40 percent of children born outside of marriage, it is obvious that
a policy of merely promoting birth control is ineffective in stemming
the rise of non-marital births. In addition to providing birth control,
Title X clinics should be required to offer educational materials on the
benefits of marriage and referrals to education in relationships and
life-planning skills to clients who are interested.
Reducing the Anti-Marriage Penalties in Welfare
Another important public policy to strengthen marriage would be to reduce
the penalties against marriage in the welfare system. Welfare programs
create disincentives to marriage because benefits are reduced as a
family’s income rises. A mother will receive far more from welfare if she
is single than if she has an employed husband in the home. For many
low-income couples, marriage means a reduction in government assistance and
an overall decline in the couple’s joint income.
Marriage penalties occur in many means-tested programs such as food
stamps, public housing, Medicaid, day care, and Temporary Assistance for
Needy Families. The welfare system should be overhauled to reduce such
The simplest way to accomplish this would be to increase the value of the
earned income tax credit (EITC) for married couples with children; this
could offset the anti-marriage penalties existing in other programs such as
food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid. In addition, the appeal of
welfare programs as an alternative to work and marriage could be reduced by
requiring able-bodied parents to work or prepare for work as a condition of
Conclusion: Strengthening Marriage as an Antidote to Poverty
Marriage remains America’s strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it
continues to decline. As husbands disappear from the home, poverty and
welfare dependence will increase, and children and parents will suffer as a
Since marital decline drives up child poverty and welfare dependence, and
since the poor aspire to healthy marriage but lack the norms, understanding,
and skills to achieve it, it is reasonable for government to take active
steps to strengthen marriage. Just as government discourages youth from
dropping out of school, it should clearly and forcefully articulate the
value of marriage. It should provide information that will help people to
form and maintain healthy marriages and delay childbearing until they are
married and economically stable. In particular, clarifying the severe
shortcomings of the “child first, marriage later” philosophy to
potential parents in lower-income communities should be a priority.
Marriage is highly beneficial to children, adults, and society; it needs
to be encouraged and strengthened. Under current government policies,
however, marriage is either ignored or undermined. This needs to change.
—Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in the
Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.