Last week, the Census Bureau released the annual poverty statistics for 2014. They show that 14.8 percent of the people in the United States live in poverty (below $24,008 in income for a family of four, meaning with two children), including 15.5 million children. These numbers do not capture all that our society does to help low-income Americans, but they do clearly say one thing: Our nation’s fight against poverty is far from complete, and progress has been far too slow.
As the Census report suggests, one factor that has made progress difficult is the extent to which families are formed without two involved and committed parents. As a former prosecutor, judge, state Supreme Court justice, and Human Services director of 42 years, I have confronted the “marriage problem” for my entire career. By “marriage problem,” I mean the rise in single parenting and decline in two-parent families. In too many cases, fathers are absent.
In 1964, when the War on Poverty began, only 6.8 percent of American children were born to single mothers. Today, that number is about 40 percent. The Census Bureau’s report showed that the poverty rate among families with a female householder is 30.6 percent. For married-couple families, it is 6.2 percent. More than 60 percent of poor families were headed by single parents in 2014.
Family Cases Crowd Courts
I have seen this play out firsthand, in Michigan. In the most recent state court report, 224,151 of 334,439 filings involved family and criminal court cases, often the fallout of fragmented families. Cases involving the breakdown in two-parent families or the failure to form a stable family unit included paternity, divorce, child support, child abuse and neglect, and many categories of crimes. Indeed, in my experience, only a small percentage of criminal and family court cases involved defendants from intact two-parent families.
Familial chaos harms the innocent. Judges and social workers see some of the most heinous examples of it every day. Take the problem of serial boyfriends: in child-rape cases, thousands of children have been victimized by mom’s new boyfriend, not by their biological fathers. In child deaths from abuse, far too many children under age three are killed by mom’s new boyfriend. It is unusual that a biological father is the abuser.
Given the enormous stress that single parenthood puts on women, who almost always take on the bulk of child rearing, poverty is a women’s issue. It is the women’s issue, in my view.
Single Parenting Is Too Hard for Most
Being a single parent does not make one a bad person, and children of single parents are not all destined for bad outcomes. Many do a heroic job in the midst of daunting circumstances, and some attain remarkable success—President Obama being the most visible example. But the national data and my experience suggest that raising a child alone is much more difficult than having two committed parents.
Low-income families face many pressures and circumstances that make marriage more difficult. The link between family structure and economic struggle runs both ways. Addressing family structure may not be a sufficient condition for substantially reducing poverty—but it is a necessary one. We have done little to send a strong message about the benefits of marriage.
While marriage is not the societal norm it once was, it is clearly one in which many see great value. The campaign for the right of same-sex couples to marry is now resolved. It held, at its core, that marriage matters.
Let’s Start Addressing This
In this new environment where marriage is valued by some but far from a norm, leaders must be honest about the benefits of two committed parents for successfully raising children, and of the difficulties that accompany raising a child alone. As Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins have shown, children who finish high school, then get a job, then get married, and then have children—in that order—have a minimal chance of living in poverty.
Public policy must also be improved. Embedded in many social welfare programs are penalties that cause families to lose substantial public benefits. Elements of our tax code also penalize marriage. Addressing those penalties, especially for the most vulnerable, should be a priority. That’s why it is welcome news that leaders are beginning to address it. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s recently-released tax proposal, for example, contains an important provision that would eliminate some tax-code-related penalties. The press did not give this provision much attention, but they should. At a minimum, public policy should do no harm with respect to marriage.
We have made progress in addressing material hardship since the War on Poverty began. However, these efforts have been made more difficult and more expensive by the need to mitigate the harm to the innocent caused by fragmenting and chaotic families. Any serious effort to address poverty must recognize that children need a stable and secure home environment with two caring and committed parents. Friends, neighbors, leaders, and policymakers must band together in making this a priority.