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Holly’s Letter from America: Marriage is the key to ending child poverty

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Child poverty is a major concern in the United States. But our policy-makers fail to discuss what has been shown to be one of its principal causes:  the decline of marriage.

Marriage is declining rapidly in the US and with it, the number of children born to married parents. According to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, in 2010, only 59 per cent of all births occurred within marriage, compared to 93 per cent of all births in 1964.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not a teenage pregnancy issue.  In 2008, only eight per cent of out-of-wedlock births were by girls under the age of 18.  Seventy five per cent of out-of-wedlock births, however, were by women between the ages of 18-29.  As Rector puts it, this is an issue about ‘the breakdown in relationships between young adult men and women.’

And that relationship breakdown has tremendous consequences for children.  Seventy one per cent of poor families with children are headed by single parents, whereas 73 per cent of non-poor families are headed by married parents.

There’s a correlation here, too, with education. The less educated a woman is, the more likely she is to have a baby out of wedlock.  2008 statistics show that 65 per cent of births to women who were high school dropouts were outside marriage.  On the other end of the spectrum, only eight per cent of births to women who were college graduates were outside marriage.

Yet, keeping children out of poverty isn’t just about educating the mother; it is also about having married parents.  If anything, these statistics tell us that educated women tend to get married before they have children, whereas less educated women tend to have a go at parenthood alone.

The result is that, as Rector warns us, ‘the US is steadily separating into a two-caste system with marriage and education as the dividing line.’  Children in the top third of the population grow up in a home with educated, married parents, whereas children in the bottom third grow up in a home with a single parent – usually the mother – who has a high school degree or less.

Even among the poorly educated, marriage contributes hugely to reducing poverty.  In fact, Rector argues that ‘being married has roughly the same effect in reducing poverty that adding 5 or 6 years to a parent’s education has.’  Surprisingly, ‘high school drop-outs who are married have a far lower poverty rate than do single parents with one or two years of college.’

These are important statistics.  The picture that they paint points to a public policy that should encourage and support marriage – in striking contrast to the liberal policies that we have now.

For the past few decades, our politicians have approached poverty by emphasizing income redistribution, certainly, but also birth control, abortion, and sex education.  The liberal solution is to meddle with the mechanics of reproduction.

The problem is that after decades of leading people by the hand into ‘safe’ sexual relationships, out-of-wedlock births are still on the rise.  And we also have research which tells us that unmarried young women know exactly how babies are made, and that even with unlimited access to birth control, they actually choose to have babies.  They want to have children.

Thus, the problem of having children out of wedlock – and by extension, raising those children in poverty – is so much more complicated than handing out condoms.  It is about dysfunctional relationships, not dysfunctional sex.

Our politicians have remained shamefully silent on the importance of marriage, which has strong connections to normative notions of responsibility, and the importance of the family as a unit of society.  And feminists have steered policy away from marriage as well, as many of them see it as an institutionalised exploitation of women.  And yet it is marriage, every bit as it is education, that keeps women, and their children, out of poverty.

The Obama administration has urged every young person to go to college.  College is seen as the fail-safe way to a bright future.  We need to start a similar public campaign about the importance of marriage.

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Holly Hamilton-Bleakleyhttp://philosophyforparents.com/
Holly is a mother of six, now living in the United States. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History & Political Thought from Newnham College, Cambridge. She blogs at Philosophy for Parents. Tim is her husband and a former RAF officer.

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