Poverty – The High Cost of Marriage Breakdown

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME (zenit.org) — The U.S. Census Bureau released the latest figures on income and poverty on Sept. 16. According to the report the official U.S. poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3%, up from 13.2% in 2008. In raw numbers this adds up to 43.6 million people in poverty in 2009, compared to 39.8 million in 2008.

It was also the third consecutive annual increase, the press release noted.

The official poverty threshold for a family of four in 2009 was $21,954. A number of the press reports on the data pointed out that the Census Bureau figures only take into account monetary income and the number of those classified as poor would be several million less if other benefits were taken into account.

No doubt a major factor in the increase in poverty was the economic recession. On Sept. 20 the National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the downslide began in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009. This made it the longest recession in the United States since the end of World War II.

Another publication issued on the same day as the Census Bureau report sheds light on an often ignored major cause of poverty, namely marriage breakup. “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” was written by Robert Rector and published by the Heritage Foundation.

“Marriage remains America’s strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it continues to decline,” Rector affirmed.

Single parents

He analyzed the data from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2008. According to this, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2008 was 36.5%. This compares to just 6.4% for married couples with children. So being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80%.

Rector conceded that some of this difference lies in the fact that single parents generally have fewer educational qualifications than married couples. Even so, when married couples are compared to single parents with the same level of education, the married poverty rate is still around 75% lower.

The study went on to observe that unfortunately marriage is declining rapidly in the U.S. During most of the 20th century nearly all children were born to married couples. Thus, when President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, 93% of children born in the United States were born to married parents.

The following years saw a dramatic change in this situation. In 2007, only 59% of all births in the nation occurred to married couples.

Rector also commented that we shouldn’t think this is a phenomenon mainly due to teenage pregnancy and births. In fact, only 7.7% of out-of-wedlock births in the United States in 2008 were to women 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,” Rector affirmed.

Overall, single-parent families comprise one-third of all families with children, but 71% of poor families with children are headed by single parents. By contrast, 74% of all non-poor families with children are headed by married couples, the study observed.

The massive swing to single parenthood has also imposed a big cost for the public purse. According to Rector the federal government operates over 70 means-tested welfare programs that provide aid to low-income persons. In fiscal year 2010, federal and state governments spent over $400 billion on means-tested welfare for low-income families with children, he said. And around three-quarters of this assistance, or $300 billion, went to single-parent families.


The likelihood of single parenthood is strongly influenced by two factors, race and education. The out-of-wedlock birth rate (the total number of out-of-wedlock births to mothers of a group divided by all births to the group in the same year) for the entire population was 40.6% in 2008. Among white non-Hispanic women, however, it was only 28.6%. It almost doubled among Hispanics, to 52.5% and among blacks, it was 72.3%.

Another factor is education. “The U.S. is steadily separating into a two-caste system with marriage and education as the dividing line,” Rector commented.

In 2008, 1.72 million children were born outside of marriage in the United States. Most of these births occurred to young adult women with a high school degree or less. In fact, more than two-thirds of births to women who were high school dropouts occurred outside of marriage. By contrast, among women with at least a college degree, only 8% of births were out of wedlock.

“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,” Rector concluded.

Other countries

The United States is hardly alone in seeing a marked increase in single parenthood. According to the European Union’s statistical agency, Eurostat, the number of children born out of wedlock in the 27 nations of the E.U. has doubled over the past two decades, the New York Times reported Sept. 9.

In 2008, 35.1% of births were outside marriage. Less than 20 years ago, in 1990 they were only 17.4%. Every E.U. nation except Denmark has experienced an increase according to Eurostat.

Earlier this year a report about marriage levels in England and Wales announced that fewer people are marrying since records began in 1862, the Independent newspaper reported Feb. 11.

Both civil and church weddings declined. The latter now account for only a third of all marriages.

For the first time fewer than one in 50 single women got married in 2008, the article noted. There were 232,990 weddings in England and Wales, 35,000 fewer than a decade earlier.

Further north, in Scotland, the situation is no better, as a March 12 article reported. There were only 27,524 weddings last year, the lowest since 1893.

An unnamed spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland was critical of the British government for not providing more financial incentives for couples to marry, thereby making marriage more economically attractive.

“Unfortunately, this government has penalized marriage through the tax system which has contributed to the present crisis,” he told the Scotsman.

In the light of these statistics it was not a surprise to read a report published June 25 in the U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper that nearly one child in three is living without their father or mother.

According to an analysis of data by the Office for National Statistics, 3.8 million children live with only one of their biological parents because they have a lone mother or their father or mother has left home. They account for 30% of all children.

There are 2.7 million who live with a single mother and 200,000 with a lone father. Another 500,000 are in cohabiting step-families, and 400,000 in married step-families. Their numbers have grown by 600,000 since 1999.

In his Sept. 13 address welcoming the new ambassador for Germany, Benedict XVI expressed his concern about the weakening of the Christian concept of marriage and the family. A key characteristic of this is that marriage is a lasting and permanent union of the spouses.

Alternative models of marriage and family life will lead to a confusion of values in society, the Pope warned.

It’s obvious that this damage to the common good of society also brings with it high economic costs for millions of adults and children.

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