One of the greatest drivers of poverty in the United States is the breakdown of marriage. Eighty percent of all long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes, over 70 percent of poor families are headed by a single parent, and children in single-parent families are approximately five times more likely to be poor than their peers from married-parent homes.
The connection between marriage and poverty is becoming increasingly problematic as the rate of unwed childbearing continues its upward climb. Today, more than 40 percent of U.S. babies are born to single mothers, whereas in the 1960s the rate was less than 10 percent.
The majority of these single mothers are those with a high school education or less—those who will face the most challenges providing for a child on their own. On the other hand, having a child outside of marriage is, by comparison, a relatively rare occurrence among college-educated women.
As The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector notes, this phenomenon is creating a two-caste society with marriage and education as the divide. “Children born to married couples with a college education are mostly in the top half of the population; children born to single mothers with high-school degrees or less are mostly in the bottom half.”
And this isn’t a teen birth problem. The majority of unwed births occur to women between the ages of 18 and 30, representing a breakdown of marriage in lower-income communities.
In a newly released book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray discusses how marriage and unwed childbearing are contributing to a divided society. Commenting on Murray’s research, Professor Brad Wilcox writes in The Wall Street Journal:
Nonmarital childbearing (out-of-wedlock births) is a rare occurrence among the white upper class. Marriage is not losing ground in America’s best neighborhoods.
But it’s a very different story in blue-collar America.… Nonmarital childbearing is skyrocketing among the white lower class. Less than 5% of white college-educated women have children outside of marriage, compared with approximately 40% of white women with just a high-school diploma. The bottom line is that a growing marriage divide now runs through the heart of white America.
Although Murray’s research focuses solely on Caucasians, unwed childbearing is a significant problem among other racial groups, in many cases much more so. Over 70 percent of African American children are born outside of marriage and more than half of Hispanic children are born to single mothers. Marriage significantly reduces the poverty rate for all groups.
But it is not because women in lower-income communities do not value marriage. Research suggests quite the opposite. However, marriage has become a capstone event, something that happens once a couple has “arrived” in the middle class, rather than a vital step toward upward mobility. For these women, motherhood all too often takes place before matrimony, significantly hindering the likelihood of achieving a stable marriage or a stable financial future.
So why aren’t we warning these women of the risks associated with having a child prior to getting married? As Rector remarks:
They are never told that marriage has beneficial effects. The schools, the welfare system, the health care system, public authorities, and the media all remain scrupulously silent on the subject. In the face of this pervasive social silence, it should be no surprise that out-of wedlock childbearing has become the norm in so many communities.
Similarly, Murray notes that “politicians and media eminences are too frightened to say…[that] nonmarital births are problematic.”
Instead of failing to address the issue, as Murray adds, “When it comes to marriage…the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”