Los Angeles Times
POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

 

Monday, October 6, 1997

WASHINGTON OUTLOOK / RONALD BROWNSTEIN
Promise of Reducing Poverty May Be Found Inside Marriage Vows
By RONALD BROWNSTEIN
 

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Deep inside the latest Census Bureau report on the financial health of the nation's families is a challenging response to an enduring question: What's the most effective program for lifting Americans out of poverty?
     The answer: marriage.
     The word "marriage" hasn't been heard much in the poverty debate since at least late 1995, when congressional Republicans backed off welfare reform efforts to penalize out-of-wedlock births. But the new census report--like the huge Promise Keepers rally that descended on Washington over the weekend--underscores the futility of talking about poverty without addressing the responsibility of men and women to jointly support the families they create.
     In its annual snapshot, the census last week reported that 13.7% of Americans remain in poverty--a disappointingly high figure so deep into an economic recovery that began in 1991.
     But the census also found that just 5.6% of married families are poor. Among married families in which at least one partner works full time, year-round, no matter how menial the job, poverty has almost disappeared: Just 1.8% of those families--less than 1 in 50--are poor. In stark contrast, nearly one-third of families headed by a single woman are poor; so are almost 1 in 7 families headed by a single man.
     "In the deepest sense, these numbers just beautifully illustrate the point that the crisis before us is a lack of family formation," said David Blankenhorn, president of the centrist Institute for American Values.
     That's not the only crisis the census numbers pinpoint: They also show continuing pressure on wages for low-skill workers. (Income for the poorest one-fifth of families actually fell last year.) But these latest census figures ought to focus the poverty debate on two central questions: What can be done to raise the incomes of families with only one parent--especially now that welfare has become a program of temporary assistance? And even more important, what, if anything, can be done to encourage more two-parent families?
     It's clear that the decline of the two-parent family helps explain the stubborn persistence of double-digit poverty rates. The poverty rate for families today is about 17% higher than in 1976. Yet over the intervening period, the poverty rate for married couples has remained almost unchanged, while declining slightly for female-headed households.
     How could the overall poverty rate rise while remaining stable for the two principal forms of families? The answer is largely that single-parent families, which endure much higher rates of poverty, now constitute a greater share of all families. In 1976, single parents headed just over 16% of families. Now single-parent families constitute nearly one-fourth of the total. As their numbers grow, their higher poverty rate swells the overall poverty figure.
     This structural change has had the most dramatic impact on the African American community, where single-parent families (the great bulk of them headed by women) now make up a majority of families. While black married couples are steadily gaining ground economically, the tilt toward single-parent families has held back African Americans overall.
     For the past 30 years, the median income for black families has remained stuck at 59% of the median income for whites. But married African Americans today earn 84% as much as white couples. That's up from 68% in 1967. Married black couples in which both partners work now earn 86% as much as similar white couples. The problem is that married couples are now just 45% of all black families--down from two-thirds in 1967. Their decline suppresses the black median income and increases the black poverty rate.
     These numbers encourage two responses. The most traditional is to search for mechanisms to bolster low-income families, especially those headed by single parents. When welfare was an open-ended entitlement, those discussions quickly stalemated in arguments about dependency. But the conversion of welfare into a system that expects work from virtually all parents points toward a more productive question: How can society make work pay for everyone who works?
     President Clinton can claim some progress on that front: Since 1993, he's signed legislation to increase the minimum wage, expand the earned-income tax credit and provide health care for more uninsured children. But more can be done. Bob Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, offers three worthwhile ideas for starters: raising the minimum wage again before inflation erodes the last increase; subsidizing health insurance not just for working-poor kids but also for their parents; and reforming the child-care tax credit to direct more of its benefit from high- to low-income families.
     Yet no matter what government does, many fatherless families, as Blankenhorn says, will remain "chronically vulnerable economically." That reality points toward a second, largely unexplored, question: What can society do to encourage more marriage? In a pioneering experiment, Louisiana allows newlyweds to choose a "covenant marriage" that prohibits divorce except in the most limited circumstances. Some in Congress want to give married couples preference in public housing and other benefits. The end of the welfare entitlement may make out-of-wedlock childbearing marginally less attractive to young women. Over time, tougher child-support enforcement may have the same effect on young men.
     Biology, of course, argues in the opposite direction. Which is why the culture--with its capacity to set, or loosen, limits--will always shape the family far more than the government does. On that front, there are some promising signs: The divorce rate has stabilized lately, and so has the rate of out-of-wedlock births, after 30 years of explosive growth. But these trends have moderated at corrosive levels: 31% of children younger than 18 live with just one parent, double the percentage in 1970.
     Most of those parents make heroic efforts. But they are paddling against an economic current that now almost always demands two oars. The moral challenge of poverty now presents a challenge to our morality. Without more success at rebuilding the family, Americans are likely to remain disappointed at our progress in dismantling poverty.

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