Poverty Can Be Solved By MORE MARRIAGES, According To Some Republicans! What A Relief

You see, we've been spending all this time blathering on about social inequality and wage gaps and poverty, when really, we should be talking about marriage.

Jan 13, 2014 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

Stop me if you've heard this one before: our society is one rife with social inequality and an ever-widening gap between wealthy and poor. Opportunities dwindle for some while they open wide for others, as angry citizens take to the streets to fight for fair wages, crackdowns on big banks, and an end to social injustices. 

This is "the defining challenge of our time," and you know I'm not fooling around, because the President said so. 

The thing is, this whole thing could be really easily solved. You see, we've been spending all this time blathering on about social inequality and wage gaps and poverty, when really, we should be talking about marriage. Marriage is the solution to this significant and seemingly overwhelming social problem!

I am so relieved! I mean, I'm kind of sad, because this news basically puts my whole career in the dumpster, although I'm hoping that "Modern Bride" is looking for some new columnists, because I have some really great ideas for decaying industrial landscape-themed weddings. But, you know what? This is bigger than my career. This is about building a wholesome, healthy, happy America where everyone has access to equal economic and social opportunities. 

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These people look so happy! I think they know something I don't. 

Photo: Camilla.

Ahem. 

So, you may have noticed that we are commemorating the fifty year anniversary of the War on Poverty, which, uh, isn't going very well if it's reached its golden anniversary and poverty is still a huge issue. This means that all sorts of politicians are putting their oar in about the solution to social inequality in the US. One of those politicians was Senator Marco Rubio (Republican from the Great State of Florida), who brought a Republican oldie but goodie back to the main stage: marriage. 

He insisted that the solution to poverty in the US lay not in government programs, but in marriage, trotting out some statistics to bolster his point and suggesting that the government should provide marriage incentives (not a new idea), and, you know, do away with some of these useless government agencies focused on fighting poverty. 

Rubio's words were echoed in a piece at "The Atlantic" by W. Bradford Wilcox, insisting that people interested in fighting inequality need to "stop talking about inequality" and, among other things, promote marriage. Wilxcox directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and he has been accused of academic misconduct in the course of his work.

Are we sure we trust these sources when it comes to fighting social inequality. Wilcox and the GOP are heavily politically biased in favor of marriage, and that has to be kept in mind when evaluating their claims about what will solve the problem of poverty in the United States.

A high percentage (22%, to be exact) of children in the US live in poverty. This is both shocking and disgraceful, and it contributes to intergenerational poverty and lack of opportunities. Of those children, roughly 38% are Black, 35% are Latino, nearly 14% are Asian, and approximately 12% are white. Children in single-parent families are more likely to be poor, and it's even worse for children in families headed by a single mother; in terms of quality of life, income, and other measures, we rank below sixteen other nations in terms of the welfare of our single mothers

Any objective approach to fighting poverty in the US must tackle these facts head-on, because getting children out of poverty will help society as a whole. The GOP's solution is marriage, based on claims that being in a two-parent family reduces the likelihood of poverty (and, of course, rooted in GOP ideas about 'family values'). Others...disagree. 

Wilcox agrees with the GOP, and lays out a clear argument for promoting marriage as an end to social inequality, but it doesn't actually hold water under close examination. He curiously chose to contrast Atlanta and Salt Lake City as two metropolitan areas to prove his case. Atlanta has an extremely low rate of upward mobility, while Salt Lake City has a high rate. Atlanta is also heavily racially segregated, and has much poorer schools in comparison to Salt Lake City (this is, in part, a result of the comparative wealth of Salt Lake City, which has larger tax revenues with which to fund schools). 

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Meanwhile, these people are in England. Where single mothers enjoy many more social supports than they do here.

Photo: Kelly Parker McPherson.

A key component of his argument: Atlanta has more single mothers, Salt Lake City has more two-parent families, ergo, marriage is the solution to the disparities between the two cities. But let's take a closer look. Atlanta is a historically Black city, with a 54% Black population. A key current and historic predictor of poverty is race, because race and poverty go hand-in-hand in the United States, thanks to racism within our economic and social systems. While it's nothing for this country to be proud of, I would expect to see a higher rate of poverty in a Black city, because it's in line with historical predictions. 

Salt Lake City, meanwhile, is 75% white. Furthermore, it's not just white, but heavily Mormon (something Wilcox does discuss in his analysis, to be fair). The Mormon Church is extremely organized and supportive of its community members. Mormons don't just go to church on Sunday and call it good, especially in Salt Lake City, which is the heart of the Mormon faith. They attend church events throughout the week, have a close social network with other members of the church, and, critically, have their own secondary safety net through the church. 

Mormons, in other words, aren't going to sit idle when they see members of the faith in trouble. They're also less likely to tolerate single mothers, of course, which is one reason the marriage rate in Salt Lake City is so much higher. 

Comparing Atlanta and Salt Lake City is unfair. The cities don't have similar demographic and social profiles, and there are too many variables to control for when examining poverty rates. Wilcox picked and chose among available options to find some that would bolster his thesis, and stopped there. 

He also notes that increased government spending increases upward mobility. This actually doesn't have anything to do with marriage -- but is, in fact, just as he states, a strong predictor of upward mobility. More government spending on the creation of an effective and comprehensive safety net makes it more likely that people will be lifted from poverty, and will be supported so they do not fall back into poverty. Notably, most of the GOP wants to slash government spending while promoting marriage -- which would not have a meaningful effect on poverty rates. 

Why? Well, one, because marriage doesn't lift people out of poverty. Economic supports do. While marriages theoretically create a dual-income household and thus increase the chances of a family's doing well, the situation is much more complicated than that. 

The Council on Contemporary Families notes that promoting marriage is not an effective tool for addressing poverty in the United States. One of the most significant factors they found was actually family planning -- the ability to choose the timing and spacing of your children, and to take control of your own fertility, is a huge predictor when it comes to poverty.

Single mothers who marry are 66% likely to divorce by their mid thirties or early 40s, and not only that, they often end up in a worse economic position than the one they started in. Furthermore, "...the most rigorous evaluation of [marriage promotion] programs in eight cities found that, overall, they created no long-term improvements in new unwed parents’ relationship quality, marriage rates, or children’s economic wellbeing, and they actually resulted in modest decreases in fathers’ financial support and parental involvement."

So, what would actually help single parent families, particularly single mothers? I'll give you a hint: it's not marriage, if you hadn't already guessed. It's actually comprehensive social programs and support for parents, including paid family leave, childcare services, paid sick days, a higher minimum wage, wage parity (racial wage parity is particularly important), universal preschool, better schools, improved civil planning (many single parents are isolated by poor public transit systems, bad public housing, and inaccessible communities), and living in a society that doesn't demonize single mothers.