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Policy should recognize that the impact on child poverty of having married parents has reduced since the 1970s. Having working parents is more important.
Politicians are putting too much emphasis on marriage as a solution to child poverty. Since 1974, in the United States, marriage’s effectiveness in protecting children from poverty has fallen by more than half. At the same time, the impact of parental employment on reducing child poverty has more than doubled. Policy makers can best cut child poverty by boosting both the numbers and the incomes of adult earners in households with children.
These recommendations stem from my recent study that examines how marriage and work, respectively, influenced child poverty in the U.S. from 1974 to 2010. I found that marriage still benefits children economically, but less than in the past. Having working adults in the household matters more than before, and the balance of importance has shifted considerably towards work.
“Marriage still benefits children economically, but less than in the past. Having working adults in the household matters more and the balance of importance has shifted considerably towards work.”
These results align with data showing that the child poverty gap between unmarried and married households has narrowed. They are likewise consistent with a widening poverty gap among children living in no-earner, one-earner, and two-or-more-earner households.
A political focus on marriage, in any case, isn’t having much impact on how couples operate. Whereas a married couple with children was once the norm, more children are now born out of wedlock and more are living in single-parent households. Divorce rates increased during the period and remain relatively high; cohabitation levels are increasing; and more Americans are choosing to marry later, if at all. Overall, marriage has become a less universal institution.
Even if unmarried parents get married, their children won’t necessarily be lifted out of poverty. For example, Wendy Sigle-Rushton and Sara McLanahan found that almost half of unmarried mothers would continue to live below the federal poverty line even if they were to marry.
Clearly, the U.S. needs more effective policy tools. The nation has failed to reduce child poverty significantly over the past few decades and has unusually high child poverty rates relative to other rich countries. Greater support for work in families could be part of the answer, particularly given the challenges that many parents face. For example, from 1974 to 2010, median wages stagnated; earnings inequality worsened; well-paid blue-collar work declined alongside growth in part-time, low-wage jobs; and job insecurity increased.
Why has work become a better tool than marriage for tackling child poverty? Traditionally, marriage has been seen as a strong defence against child poverty, because married households have had two potential earners, can pool their resources, and can save more, making them better able to withstand economic shocks. However, as more children have lived in cohabiting households, the characteristics of families in unmarried households have also changed. The typical number of earners in unmarried households increased from 1974 to 2010, while it actually decreased in married households. Thus, increased cohabitation and work in unmarried households may have weakened the poverty penalty for children who don’t live in a married household.
Work skills in unmarried households have also increased. Among children in unmarried households, the percentage of heads of household with less than a high school degree fell by half, from 45.31% in 1974 to 20.91% in 2010. Meanwhile, the percentage with four or more years of college almost doubled, from 7.29% to 14.55%. Single-parent families also became less uniformly disadvantaged: employment rose among single mothers, among whom an increasing number are well educated and have access to higher-earning jobs. The number of single fathers, who are more likely to have greater incomes and cohabitate than single mothers, also rose.
Meanwhile, work has gained greater importance as a means of alleviating childhood poverty. This is partly because economic and labor market trends increased the pressure for families to have more than one earner in the household to stay financially stable. In addition, dramatic decreases in welfare receipt and the value of welfare transfers, following the 1996 U.S. welfare reforms, made families increasingly reliant on their paid earnings. And the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which requires recipients to be employed, has expanded to become the largest family assistance program in the U.S. This transition from work-free welfare to social assistance that requires work may have increased the need for employment for avoiding child poverty.
Employment is essential for families’ economic security, and work supports such as work tax credits and child care subsidies can potentially have the largest impact on a country’s child poverty rate. Yet this fact has been relatively neglected in American discussions of poverty policy, which have often focused on simply getting people to work and cultivating their work ethic.
It is equally important to have policies that help families maintain work. Single-parent households are more vulnerable to child poverty and are less likely to have multiple earners. Thus policies should facilitate gainful and secure employment for single parents. Christina Gibson-Davis has shown that increased earnings not only improve children’s economic well-being, but may also increase the probability of financially stable marriages among low-income mothers, which in turn, could help further reduce child poverty.
Even though employment is essential, it doesn’t guarantee an escape from poverty. Poverty rates among working people remain relatively high in the United States. Therefore, boosting wages for low income workers and expanding work supports such as tax credits would also help to effectively reduce child poverty. Yet two very important and broadly supported work supports, the EITC and the Child Tax Credit, are set to expire at the end of 2017 if they are not made permanent. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, letting these credits expire could push 8 million children into, or deeper into, poverty.
Baker, RS (2015), The changing association among marriage, work, and child poverty in the United States, 1974-2010, Journal of Marriage and Family, 77.5