Marriage, Poverty and the Political Divide


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Jon Han

There remains some argument among lawmakers over which Americans should be able to marry, but nearly everyone agrees that marriage itself offers stability and economic benefits to couples and to society at large.

Most of the presidential candidates, on the right and the left, sound the same notes on the importance of families for the state of our union.

From the website of Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas: “Life, Marriage, and family are the fundamental building blocks of society.”

From the Democrat Hillary Clinton: “When families are strong, America is strong.”

By any number of measures, married people are on average more prosperous than those who are not married. One example: In 2011, the median net worth of married couples ages 55 to 64 was $240,000, about four times that of unmarried men and women, the Census Bureau reported.

So it is perhaps understandable that another candidate, Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, said in a 2014 speech: “The greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.”

At an anti-poverty forum in South Carolina this month, Mr. Rubio and other Republicans talked about the crucial role that marriage often plays in improving financial prospects.

There’s a catch, though. Even if marriage rates were to skyrocket, there would be no shortage of poor married people.

About 28 million married Americans and their children lived below or near the poverty line in 2013, according to the federal Government Accountability Office.

And the number of married Americans and their children with incomes below the federal poverty level rose by 30 percent from 2000 to 2014, while the overall population of that group declined 3.6 percent. (There was a similar rise in poverty among Americans over all.)

A majority of married families who are considered low income (defined as at or below 150 percent of the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure) includes at least one person who is employed. Millions of these families receive help in the form of food stamps or payments from other government programs.

The federal government has long been working to promote marriage. It spent $800 million through 2014 on the Healthy Marriage Initiative, begun during the administration of President George W. Bush, which funds a range of programs to help low-income couples have better relationships.

Kay S. Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, wrote in The New York Times in 2014 that such marriage-promotion programs had met with meager success. (From 2000 to 2010, marriage rates continued to decline.)

“The right wants to see more married-couple families,” she wrote. “For the left, widespread single motherhood is a fact of modern life that has to be met with vigorously expanded government support.”

She added, “It doesn’t make much sense to encourage, much less pressure, a couple with no shared history, interests or deep affection to marry.”

But Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, pointed to an analysis of 100 marriage-promotion programs that “overwhelmingly shows positive results.”

“The bottom line on this is helping couples develop flourishing and enduring relationships is a difficult task,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask for a behavioral intervention. But the overwhelming evidence is that these programs have measurable and quite real effects.”

Although promoting marriage and counseling may be useful, policy makers should focus on strengthening the economic foundations of families in ways that foster stable and healthy marriages and relationships, said Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. (The program will be releasing a report on marital poverty this winter.)

“Rising income inequality and economic instability contribute to family instability,” Ms. Boteach said.

Poorer Americans already aspire to marriage at similar or higher rates than their higher-income counterparts, according to a 2012 U.C.L.A. study. But when they do marry, their marriages are much more likely to end in divorce. Providing livable incomes for these married Americans, many poverty experts say, may be one way to reduce a powerful source of marital stress.

How to reach that goal is where the divide between parties is most evident.

Democrats often talk about proposals like mandated paid family leave, more child-care services and raising the minimum wage. On his website, Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate, says: “When it comes to supporting real family values, the United States lags behind virtually every major country on earth. We are the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee its workers some form of paid family leave, paid sick leave or paid vacation time.”

Republicans generally focus more on the need to expand opportunities and jobs to help families prosper, or to alter trade and immigration policies. (Mr. Rubio has called for a tax credit for employers that offer family leave, encouraging but not requiring paid leave for new parents.)

Democrats say Republican tax and budget proposals could slash benefit programs that many families need. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, for example, concluded that large spending cuts would be required with Donald J. Trump’s tax plan or the national debt would soar. Mr. Trump has rejected that assessment.

“Marriage is far from the magic bullet to end poverty that some conservatives claim,” Ms. Boteach said. “It’s important to be concerned about poverty among single-parent households, but the reality of poverty among millions of married couples and their children has been ignored for too long.”

W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, agreed that marriage is not all that is needed to fight poverty.

“But Americans are more likely to realize the American dream if they get and stay married, and grow up in communities where marriage is stronger,” he said. “Marriage fosters saving, facilitates economies of scale and encourages stability in family life, all things that are good for the average American’s pocketbook.”



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