Sen. Rand Paul is, once again, confused. Recently, he told a Chamber of Commerce gathering that being "married with kids versus unmarried with kids is the difference between living in poverty and not," and that the government "should sell that message."
Sen. Marco Rubio is similarly flummoxed. "The truth is," he said, "that the greatest tool to lift people ... from poverty is one that decreases child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn't a government program. It's called marriage. Fifty years ago today, when the War on Poverty was launched, 93 percent of children in the United States were born to married parents. By 2010, that number had plummeted to 60 percent. It shouldn't surprise us that 71 percent of poor families with children are families that are not headed by a married couple."
Conservative pundits, for their part, are falling in line, with the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker claiming that “marriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times.” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat takes for granted that marriage leads to economic stability, and David Brooks has simply thrown up his hands: "It would be great if we knew how to boost marriage rates, but we don't," he writes.
So why don't poor women take that simple step, get married and end their poverty? The answer, of course, is that things are not so simple, and that despite conservative ideology's faith in it, marriage is not the cure for poverty.
It was the legendary sociologist William Julius Wilson who uncovered the real reason that poor women stopped marrying, when he posed the Rubio-Paul question in the 1980s. The difference is that, unlike Rubio and Paul, Wilson answered the question with research, not ideology.
Wilson began by noticing that the birth rate among poor urban teenagers was actually declining -- but that the rate of out of wedlock births among them was increasing. Fewer teens were having children, but those who did were no longer getting married. Why?
Wilson noticed that these trends were occurring at the same time that other changes were blindsiding the cities: The first was the flight of the factories, and of good jobs for unskilled workers. The result was immediate: In 1970, only five Chicago neighborhoods knew a rate of 15 percent unemployment or more. By 1980, 25 neighborhoods were so afflicted.
As its working class became jobless, the neighborhood's middle class -- the doctors, lawyers, store owners and so on who had served that working class -- joined the exodus. Left behind were what Wilson called "the truly disadvantaged" -- cut off from jobs, from interaction with a middle class, from decent schools. Gang activity and crime rates increased. In the nation's five largest cities, the poverty population increased by a staggering 161 percent in extreme poverty areas (those with a poverty rate of at least 40 percent). Poverty had not just increased, it was now concentrated and segregated.
In these neighborhoods -- lacking good schools, a middle class or jobs for unskilled workers, neighborhoods where so many young men died or were incarcerated -- the "male marriageable pool index," the percentage of young men able to support a family, declined sharply. So did marriage rates.
Wilson's discoveries have been reinforced by a substantial body of subsequent research. For example, a new study by a Harvard team featuring Emmanuel Saez (a discoverer of the 1 percent's recent engorgement) and recent MacArthur "genius" grant winner Raj Chetty finds that segregation of the poor from good jobs, schools and neighborhoods remains one of the biggest impediments to upward mobility.
Wilson's discovery that marriage is no panacea for poor women has also been reaffirmed by recent research. Research conducted by Kristi Williams at Ohio State University found that "[t]he flaw in this argument [that marriage creates prosperity] is the assumption that all marriages are equally beneficial. In fact, however, the pool of potential marriage partners for single mothers in impoverished communities does not include many men with good prospects for becoming stable and helpful partners." In fact, a national study of more than 7,000 women found that 64 percent of single mothers who married were divorced by the time they reached 35-44. What's more, those who married and then divorced were worse off, on average, than single mothers who had never married. Given this finding, should Douthat really be calling for "more imperfect unions"?
Indeed, research shows, the very nostrum Rand Paul proposed, that government should "sell this message" of marriage as the path to prosperity, has been tried and found wanting. Analyzing outcomes of the 1996 Welfare Reform law, which allowed states to spend federal dollars on marriage promotion, a a recent federal study found that "no long term improvements in marriage rates or children's economic well-being" accrued from these efforts. What’s clear is that unmarried mothers know something Paul, Rubio and their Op-Ed page cheerleaders don’t -- that marriage isn’t a cure-all for the economic woes of single-parent families.
Fortunately, thanks again to research, we know not only what doesn't alleviate poverty, but also what does. This time it's a cross-cultural study, showing that the U.S. poverty rate for single-parent families is nearly twice that of the average in a comparison of 16 relatively affluent nations. Three factors make those families better off in other countries than they are in the U.S: The first is family allowances; the U.S. offers the stingiest of these. The second is paid parental leave, and the third is publicly funded childcare.
Are these too much to ask in a moment of gridlock and deficits? A final study calls for creative small-ball. This one begins by noting that an astounding 79 percent of births to single women under the age of 25 are unintended, and that comprehensive sex education, safe and affordable access to contraception and medical care have been shown to be effective in reducing unplanned pregnancy.
It has now been over a decade since Karl Rove told a reporter that "the reality-based community," which "believes that solutions emerge from your judicious study of reality," had been trumped by the right, by "history's actors" and their conservative ideology. It is time for this triumph of myth and cant over reason to end. The reality of poverty is just too important to be governed by blind faith.