As an occasion to woo a lover or rekindle romance with a spouse, Valentine’s Day celebrates the modern conception of marital bliss based on love and affection. Happy couples raise happy children who are more likely to succeed in life by having two loving parents.
It’s an ideal that is increasingly rare in practice. Close to half the children in the U.S. are raised by single parents. Close to half of mothers over 35 have never married. Younger adults show an even lower incidence of marriage: Whereas in 1960 only 9 percent of adults over 25 had never been married, last year, it was 20 percent.
Growing up in a family with only one parent (nearly always the mother) is a marked disadvantage economically. Data on unemployment, inadequate income and dropouts show a strong association with a single-parent home. All ethnic groups are affected, but class differences are pronounced. As of 2010, only 3.2 percent of mothers with advanced degrees had never married. Higher incomes equal more marriages and fewer divorces and relatively more two-parent families. Weddings and the stability of marriage are clearly affected by economic conditions.
Some commentators have blamed this trend for growing inequality in the U.S. Too many kids, they say, are raised by impoverished, overworked single mothers unable to give their children what they need. But the notion that the decreasing rate of marriage causes poverty — that getting poor Americans to marry could help solve the seemingly intractable problem of inequality — doesn’t withstand scrutiny.
The practical capacity to marry has decreased with declining wages and staggering debt that are experienced by many young workers. Such conditions make marriage much less feasible. It is the poverty of young adults who are unable to gain a foothold in the economy that has depressed the likelihood of stable marriages.
But much of the discussion continues to misleadingly center on culture and race rather than class and economic status. Compared with other groups, African-Americans have much higher rates of children born into unmarried families as well as higher poverty rates. Many eminent urban researchers agree that this disparity reflects a cultural deficiency that helps perpetuate poverty.
A favorite conservative explanation for why people are poor is that they are lazy. Cultural pathology has been increasingly popular among moderate liberals who believe that social engineering and behavioral rehabilitation can alleviate poverty. President Barack Obama and his two predecessors all invested heavily in social programs intended to provide incentives and instruction that would enhance the stability of marriages. These widespread programs have largely been unsuccessful. Nonetheless, confidence in this approach has remained unshaken.
Why do we continue to view poverty this way?
The predominant approach to poverty policies is rooted in a controversial Department of Labor report titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” It was leaked to the press in the summer of 1965. Only days later, the African-American neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles exploded in a violent uprising. The report, written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an avowed liberal who later became a Democratic senator from New York, argued that expanded rights and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty would never solve the economic problems of African-Americans because their family structure was dragging them down. Noting that African-Americans had an “illegitimacy” rate of nearly 25 percent — which at the time was considerably higher than for other ethnic groups — the report declared that this was a self-inflicted cause of poverty only destined to get worse.
Commentators at the time seized on this alleged finding as an unbiased scientific explanation for what was deemed to be pathological behavior by rioters in particular and black people in general. Today the rate of what are now termed nonmarital African-American children exceeds 70 percent, prompting many writers, both conservative and liberal, to regard Moynihan’s warning as prophetic. His report has reach: Scholars, journalists, politicians and even Obama refer to it. The argument that poverty is caused by poor marital choices often credits the Moynihan Report.
Was Moynihan right? Do cultural factors explain why marriage is declining? There are two related questions to answer. First, are African-American families culturally different from white or other ethnic families? Second, do individual misbehavior and bad choices account for why people are poor? All distinguishable and historically rooted communities in the U.S. embrace some practices that are distinctive, but their daily lives are driven by the economic landscapes in which they reside. Measured differences in marriage of low-income African-Americans are attributable in large part to disparities of unemployment and mass incarceration. According to William Julius Wilson, the famed black sociologist, the concept of marriage pools clarifies reasons for low marriage rates. When the pool of marriageable black men is compared with the number of black women of the same age, joblessness and incarceration whittle it down to a figure not far from the rate of marriage for the population as a whole. In other words, historical and structural factors better explain the lower rate: Scarcity, not cultural pathology, is the principal reason for the disparate rates.
Although the differences in rates between blacks and other groups are large, comparisons with other groups complicate that distinction. Latinos, who are intermediate in economic measures between black and white households, show rates of births to unmarried women that also fall between blacks’ and whites’. Trends on this measure for all three groups over time are essentially the same. Those shared fluctuations reflect shifts in the labor market and political economy; marriage is expensive and risky in hard times.
Marriage promotion involves well-paid consultants who design instructional programs to help troubled poor parents learn to make their marriages work and thus earn the advantages that supposedly come from a stable marriage. A large proportion of the couples in such programs have broken up. Billions of dollars have been spent on this folly. On the other hand, the earned income tax credit (EITC) program is a policy that directly subsidizes low-income families in part to ensure they are not destroyed by poverty. A simple approach, it gives poor people credit for knowing how their money should be spent. Although the effects on marriage are yet unclear, the EITC has had very positive effects in reducing poverty; nearly 30 percent of recipients and almost half of recipients’ children were lifted out of poverty in 2013. To the extent that financial problems wreck marriages, logic suggests that the extra money helped make them stronger.
In short, we can find better ways to combat poverty by making marriage more accessible and financially supported and, above all, by discarding demeaning stereotypes that have been hung on black mothers and fathers and poor parents in general.