||eep 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
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
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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