Marriage, College Education Keys to Preventing Child Poverty
The Institute for Family Studies released an edited testimony put forth by W. Bradford Wilcox to the Committee on Building an Agenda to Reduce the Number of Children in Poverty by Half in 10 Years. This ad-hoc committee is made up of experts chosen by the National Academics of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study child poverty in America. Overall, American adults without college degrees are more likely to raise children in poverty and either cohabitate or live as a single parent. Well-educated, married parents, on the other hand, have greater financial and family stability.
Research from the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution concluded that the increase in child poverty from the 1970s to the 1990s was caused in part by an increase in single-parent families over these decades. In the 1970s, 12% of children lived with a single parent; by 1990, a quarter of children were in this situation. Children now in single-parent families are over four times more likely to be poor than those with married parents.
Additionally, cohabitation and cohabitating parents are on the rise. In 2014, 7% of children in the U.S. were raised in households with cohabitating parents. Cohabitating parents are more likely to split up than married parents; ultimately, children in these families are more likely to end up without one or both of their biological parents, and are at increased risk of growing up in poverty. This research is in line with another recent study from the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute, which found that, overall, young adults who marry before having children are financially better off than those who first have children before marrying. Education also plays a factor in both poverty and marriage; marriage among poor and working-class families has been on the decline since the 1970s. While families with college-educated parents are more likely to be stable, children with parents who are less educated are more likely to experience family instability and single parenthood. In 2012, 65% of children with high-school educated mothers spent at least part of their childhood in single-parent households, while only 8% of children with parents holding a bachelor’s degree or more lived in the same situation. Young adults who are married before having children are 60% less likely to be poor than those who had a child out of wedlock.
Marriage matters for the economic wellbeing of children and plays an important role in preventing child poverty. Children raised in married households have parents who are generally more financially stable. Additionally, stably married parents who do not have children outside of their present union do not have other legal or financial obligations that affect their household .
Wilcox cites several factors as contributors to the growing marriage divide (that is, more higher-income Americans are getting married and fewer lower-income Americans are). Firstly, men without college degrees earn less and are more likely to be unemployed. This makes them less desirable as marriage partners. Secondly, and public policies are not advantageous particularly for lower-income Americans. Thirdly, the norm that marriage is the proper place for sex and childbearing has been worn down in recent years. Because lower-income Americans face less of an “opportunity cost” for nonmarital childbearing (i.e. they perceive less to lose for this event), they are more likely to have children before marriage and experience family instability. Finally, most Americans without college degrees are not active in civic life; organizations active in the civil sphere have traditionally been supportive of marriage and family life.
Wilcox set forth four policy recommendations to “bridge the gap” between less-educated and more-educated Americans, which in turn will help alleviate child poverty. First, he recommends creating more vocational education and apprenticeship opportunities for young adults who will not graduate from college. Second, instating a “grace period” for the newly married in certain financial areas would minimize “marriage penalties” for those with income under $55,000. Third, a cultural shift toward the “success sequence” (first high school degree, then full time job, marriage, and children, in that order) would encourage family and financial stability. Finally, he suggests encouraging civic organizations to provide more support for Americans without college degrees.
Those in government and public policies are not the only ones who can aid in these efforts to reduce child poverty and increase family stability. Clergy and those in ministry can provide support for couples entering into marriage and for families experiencing financial or other difficulties. All the members of the Church can donate time or treasure to programs that aid lower-income families and those on the margins, and work to cultivate a culture that promotes both education and family life.
About the Author
Caty Long is a rising second year Master of Theological Studies student at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute and currently an office assistant for the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth at the USCCB.