Marriage May Not Be Magic Bullet for Poverty

Girl using laptop computer
Getty Images
By Allison Linn

Getting hitched can hitch you to a better financial future, or so a slew of data shows.

But after years of using taxpayer money to promote marriage as a way to help single mothers and their kids climb out of poverty, some experts are arguing it's time to try something different.

"We are continuing to spend money on ... these healthy-marriage initiatives, and I think the evidence is now clear that these are not effective policies," said Kristi Williams, an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University. "So, it's time to start thinking about spending that money in a way that's more likely to help single mothers and their children."

A new briefing paper, written by Williams and released Monday by the Council on Contemporary Families, argues marriages of single mothers aren't necessarily beneficial to the women or their children.

Williams points to a study finding that more than half of single moms who married were divorced by ages 35 to 44. In many cases, women who marry and later divorce are worse off financially.

Her research also found that the children of single mothers who later married didn't often have extra physical or psychological advantages when they reached adolescence.

Williams said she saw advantages for children whose biological parents later got and stayed married but noted that's uncommon. A long-running project called Fragile Families found that only 16 percent of the low-income unwed mothers in the study were married to their child's biological father five years after the birth.

The government has long funded efforts --
stemming from the welfare reform that began in 1996 -- to encourage stable marriages and responsible fatherhood.

Williams argues that policymakers might get more bang for the buck with programs to improve the financial futures of young, low-income women. Those include helping to reduce unintended pregnancies and subsidizing child care for children three years old and younger, she said.

About 40 percent of children in the United States are born outside of marriage, up sharply from past decades, according to the latest government data. Single mothers have much higher rates of poverty than married parents, according to the Census Bureau.

Williams and others say their research has found that, like most Americans, low-income women want to get and stay married. But they hesitate because they are realistic about how challenging it will be to have a successful marriage amid severe economic strain.

"In many ways it's a rational decision, and that's why we [think] that this sort of idea of promoting marriage is sort of misguided," Williams said. "Women, in many ways, are probably more aware than the government of the challenges of having a beneficial marriage."

Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said it's not surprising to find that single mothers who wed are less likely to have a successful marriage than those who get married before having kids.

"They are more likely to have all the attendant problems that ensue when you put the baby carriage before the marriage," he said.

Still, Wilcox doesn't think that means Americans should just make peace with very high rates of single motherhood. Instead, he said, promoting having a stable marriage before having children should be one tactic in helping the poor improve their financial and personal lives.

"Regardless of your ideological status, we have a crisis in this country when it comes to quality and stability of relationships for poor, working-class [people]," Wilcox said. "Marriage is not a panacea for that crisis, but I would say it's one part of the policy mix."

More from CNBC

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

What is Inflation?

Why do prices go up?

View Course »

How to Buy a Car

How to get the best deal and buy a car with confidence.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

If you want to know how to help single parents try asking them. Especially those of us who have been there and done that. After being a single parent for the majority of my adult life and being in one failed relationship after another I have a pretty good idea about how to help single parents.

Let's try focusing on why marriages aren't working, why single parents are rushing into new doomed relationships, and why many choose living together over marriage and then we can identify effective ways to help them.

I can tell you that addictions are a big part of the problem but as we well know addictions are not the problem but a symptom of a bigger problem.

The answer is in creating stronger individuals before the promotion of merging those individuals into one relationship. A relationship is only as strong as the individuals involved.

February 03 2014 at 12:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gold Analysis

I wish I could send this report to Federal Reserve

January 08 2014 at 9:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Whyizzit that there is no mention in this article about HOW MUCH it costs to raise a child in the 21st century??? A married couple from the poorest segment of our current society has no chance of being able to give children a decent life. They simply don't earn enough money to do that. They live in awful neighborhoods, and their kids are exposed to the worst element of society. The kids don't learn anything about having a better life, because they go to the worst schools in town.

If both adults work, it's usually at mini wage jobs. They are always on the razor's edge. Just one lay-off away from disaster. Or one illness. Or one car break-down. Etc. This kind of miserable life is all they know. They spend their entire lives, just reacting to one money mess after another after another after another. And their kids will repeat that cycle, because kids imitate what they SEE happening in their family environment.

Getting married DOESN'T automatically double your income. It just doubles your household expenses.

Also, did you ever notice how many personal stories about the problems faced by laid-off unemployed people start off with: "I'm desperate, because I don't have enough money to feed my two/three/four/five kids." If they can't feed 'em --- they shouldn't breed 'em.

January 08 2014 at 2:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This article was absolutely stunning in its conclusions.
I hope "Allison" didn't get paid for this cr*p. She owe me money
for the time it took me to read it.

January 07 2014 at 9:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Teen pregnancy rates have gone thru the roof. Teen boys can impregnate as many girls as they can get their hands on --- and walk away from any responsibility for babies that result from rampant uncontrolled sexual activity. Teen girls also view having a baby as a way to get away from their parents because the government supports and pays for this irresponsible behavior.

At least 40% of all teenage girls end up pregnant. Some have more than one baby before they are even old enough to vote. This is insane.

The answer is NOT saying "get married". The answer is that the government programs which support this irresponsible behavior need to STOP.

January 07 2014 at 6:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Valerie's comment

Where do you get the 40% figure. See below more like 2.9% and has been declining for the last 20 years in the US.
"In 2012, there were 29.4 births for every 1,000 adolescent females ages 15-19, or 305,420 babies born to females in this age group.[1] Nearly eighty-nine percent of these births occurred outside of marriage[1]. The 2012 teen birth rate indicates a decline of six percent from 2011 when the birth rate was 31.3 per 1,000.[1]The teen birth rate has declined almost continuously over the past 20 years. In 1991, the U.S. teen birth rate was 61.8 births for every 1,000 adolescent females, compared with 29.4 births for every 1,000 adolescent females in 2012"

January 07 2014 at 9:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vlady1000's comment

I got the 40% figure from the current statistics on teenage pregnancies for girls living in low income families at the poverty level. Since this article is about marriage (supposedly) bringing people out of poverty, I thought the grim statistics for teen Moms from poverty-level families provided a look at what is going on in the real world --- not the fantasy world that financial writers seem in live in.

Since you appear to be so fond of stats, here are some more for you to think about:

The USA has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world. No other developed country is even close to the American rate of teens becoming pregnant. 3 out of 10 American teen girls will get pregnant before age 20. That is currently 750,000 teen pregnancies every year.

25% of teen Moms will have a second child within 2 years of having that first baby.

More than 50% of teen Moms never finish high school. Pregnancy is the top reason why these girls drop out of school without getting a HS diploma.

80% of unmarried teen Moms will end up on welfare. Most will apply for welfare within one year of having their first baby. (How long can we go on adding more than half a million teen Moms {plus their babies} to the welfare rolls every year before the system becomes unsustainable???)

8 out of 10 teen biological Dads DON'T marry the Mother of their child.

Last (but not least) the main increase in teen pregnancies is among girls younger than age 15. The teen pregnancy rate is NOT declining across the board, as you would like to think it is. It's exploding among younger teens.

January 08 2014 at 7:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

So let us just keep Obama giving them the money to survive as a single parent so they will raise their kids to be used to eternal subsidies and vote Democratic forever- no sense of accountability here at all!

January 07 2014 at 6:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Seems to me we reward the irresponsible. There is a way to prevent pregnancy, after all they aren't animals with no rational thought to think about where their choices & actions may take them. But I guess some people have no control over their lustful passions as if they are animals. Oh, and add to that - too much financial reward and attention in having multiple children out of wedlock. And yes, the earned income credit is a great payout for those single moms. It should be mandatory that they use that money to improve themselves or put it into a savings for them for emergency use only. After all, a financially responsible person is expected to set aside 6 months of expenses in case of emergency, job loss, health issue etc. And as for the whole preventing pregnancy thing, there is a way to prevent that. I am a single woman, never married, never pregnant, no abortions & never been on birth control & no I am not a lesbian. I am a responsible person with a strong work ethic that my father taught me. I believe in living responsibly & don't expect someone else to pay my way or take care of me. You would think that there should be some break for me as a single woman who has to manage everything myself. No, I just get penalized when it comes to taxes & have to pay for all of the irresponsible people. And yes, there are some rare situations where single moms made a poor decision at a young age, but when you've made 5 poor decisions and are 25,26, it is time to say the buck stops here - no more, get a job! And yes, I know it is always the children who suffer for the poor choices of the parents if you want to call them that.

January 07 2014 at 5:50 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Rick Ochoa

Why would they get married if the man has a good job. Then they would miss out on a large earned income tax, housing food stamps SNAP paying your power every winter. They don't need a man to support them if the Govt. that's going broke will. They can get all they taxes back and up to 7 or 8 thousand back on income tax a single person with no kids get only about 5 or 6 hundred back where's the fairness in that. I don't see how the govt has to cut social security the military, vets and saying they are going broke they can afford high earned income tax. Well at least they should pay in weekly on their paychecks instead of coming up with all the money at the end of the year.

January 07 2014 at 3:19 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Taxi Talk

...and get the BAR and the U.S. government to reign in the few " LOYaaahs "
who are ruining a great institution !!

It's high time for a STANDARDIZED divorce settlement process.... NOW !!!

January 07 2014 at 2:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Taxi Talk

Bzzzt. WRONG !!!

Marriage is a HUGE step towards financial stability - AND societal stability - for ALL Americans.

Go into the PRISONS and ask the inmates about their parent's status... THAT would be a story.

PS - Just curious - is the writer married ?!?!?

January 07 2014 at 2:47 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply