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September 21, 2010

Column #1,517

The Cause of Poverty: Marriage Absence

By Mike McManus

                Last week the Census announced that America’s poverty rate had increased to 14.3 percent in 2009 with 44 million people, up from 13.2 in 2008 and 40 million people in poverty.

                America’s press blamed America’s high unemployment rate for the problem. However, though the jobless rate doubled in a year from 5 to 10 percent, poverty increased only one percent.

                The primary cause of poverty is not joblessness but marriage – or rather, marriage absence.  Indeed, the Heritage Foundation published data last week: “Marriage: America’s No. 1 Weapon Against Childhood Poverty.”

                It notes, “Marriage Drops the Probability of Child Poverty by 82 percent.”

                That’s stunning.  However, 36.5 percent of families headed by a single mother were poor in 2008 while only 6.4 percent of married, two-parent families are poor.

Yet the marriage rate has plunged 51 percent since 1970.

                Heritage notes that children of unwed parents have soared eight-fold since 1960 when only five percent of births were out-of-wedlock, to 40.6 percent in 2008.  A third of America’s children live in unmarried families, seven-tenths of whom are poor.

Marriage absence should be a major political issue in the current campaigns for governors, state legislators and even Congress.

                Why?  “Marriage absence is driving federal and state deficits,” says David Usher, President of the Center for Marriage Policy in St. Louis.

                “Health care coverage, personal bankruptcy and home loan defaults are infrequent problems for married couples.  Children raised in intact families are the last to get in trouble, flunk out of school, join a gang, have babies, become chronic substance abusers, or grow up to be criminals.”

                What can be done to reverse these trends?  Heritage suggests federal strategies:

1.       Reduce anti-marriage penalties in welfare programs.  Why should the government reward single parenthood with welfare, food stamps, free medical care, housing subsidies, etc?  Robert Rector of Heritage estimates that "The cost of subsidizing single parenthood is $280 billion. The people who receive large subsidies should no longer get one-way handouts." He asserts those subsidies should require full-time work.  Welfare Reform took that strategy, reducing welfare rolls 60 percent.

2.      Require welfare offices to provide factual data on the value of marriage, and require federally funded birth control clinics to provide information on benefits of marriage.

By contrast, the new Center for Marriage Policy is recommending initiatives that could be taken by state government.

                Missouri State Rep. Cynthia Davis, the Center’s Executive Director, says present law provides “perverse incentives” to destroy rather than preserve marriage.  For example, she tells of a woman who was “poisoned by her friends to get out of the marriage.  They said she could get custody of their child, which comes with a big lump of money, plus she got her husband to pay her lawyer’s fees.  Their child was a teenager who did not want to live with her mom, but her dad, which she did.  But the mom got a court order for him to pay child support to her anyway.”

                To put it differently, the state provides incentives for marriage destruction, not marriage preservation.  Hundreds of studies prove that couples with enduring marriages are happier, healthier, live longer, and have more sex and better sex. (See “A Case for Marriage” by Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite.) 

                Rep. Davis introduced a bill requiring that couples with children agree on the divorce, unless fault (adultery, abuse) is proven - a reform of No Fault Divorce I have called Mutual Consent.  Why? She says, “It is simple.  If there are children, more people are involved.  Mutual Consent would breed more stability for society in general.”  The bill did not pass, but she was term-limited and will be out of office next year. As the Center’s Director, she can pursue legislation as a private citizen, yet with a knowledge of people and issues that only a former legislator would have.

                A second reform that could cut the divorce rate is to require divorcing couples to live apart for a year if there is Mutual Consent, and two years if contested. Maryland, Illinois and Pennsylvania have such a law and their divorce rate is HALF that of 9 states with No requirement to live apart (NH. TN, ID, FL, OR, NM, WY, NM, and KY).  Why? If couples have to live apart for a year, many couples decide to reconcile before the divorce takes effect.

                David Usher, Center President, charges “The welfare state is eating Missouri alive. The cost to taxpayers of marriage absence is at least $1.3 billion per year.  A sensible marriage policy could reduce illegitimacy and divorce by half. The deficits will abate when marriage is restored.”

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