For many Americans, poverty is hidden from view, and its reality is conveniently tucked out of sight and out of mind in places like inner cities or across rural landscapes. The effects of poverty, though, are all too real for those suffering in the shadows.
Consider one startling fact: Children from single-parent families (most of which are headed by a single mother) are over five times as likely to live in poverty than are those from married families. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector points to the root cause of the tragedy of child poverty in America:
Child poverty is an ongoing national concern, but few are aware that its principal cause is the absence of married fathers in the home. Marriage remains America’s strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it continues to decline. As husbands disappear from the home, poverty and welfare dependence will increase, and children and parents will suffer as a result.
There are other facts to back up his claim. Single-parent families account for roughly 80 percent of all long-term poverty in the United States. Not surprisingly then, nearly three-quarters of all children whose families receive welfare come from single-parent homes.
Unfortunately, as Father’s Day 2011 approaches, it is a harsh fact that more children today are being raised without their fathers as the number of unwed births in the U.S. is at its all-time high. In 1960, just over 5 percent of babies were born to single women, whereas today that number is nearly eight times higher at more than 40 percent.
The good news, however, is that marriage is a protective force against poverty, with its effects spanning demographic boundaries such as race and education level. Whereas nearly 40 percent of African-American children from single-parent homes are poor, that number is cut to below 13 percent if the parents are married. For Hispanics, the poverty rates for single- and married-parent families are approximately 35 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Furthermore, comparing families of similar education levels, marriage drops the poverty level by an average of 80 percent.
There is also research to suggest that marriages in the United States are lasting longer among some populations—the more affluent, for example. But for those from lower-income communities, the story is quite the opposite. Tragically, those most likely to have a child outside of marriage are also those most likely to struggle financially as single mothers.
Nonetheless, the rate of unwed birth and fatherlessness need not continue an inevitable upward path. There are ways to promote healthy marriage and increase the likelihood that a child will be raised by both parents, as Heritage Fellow Chuck Donovan writes.
Part of strengthening marriage lies in reducing marriage penalties, which are prevalent in a variety of welfare programs. These penalties essentially create a negative incentive for low-income parents to marry by cutting women off from benefits when they wed. Furthermore, messaging campaigns should seek to educate at-risk populations about the benefits of marriage. Simply alerting men and women from low-income communities—in which marriage is often obsolete—to the importance of marriage for their and their children’s future well-being is a crucial first step in strengthening it.
Fathers are essential to protecting the well-being of children and, subsequently, to promoting the stability of society. Being raised by a married father and mother is vital to preventing childhood poverty and the host of social ills related to it. On this Father’s Day, the nation should recommit to strengthening and promoting the institution most likely to help fathers fulfill their crucial role: marriage.
Rachel Sheffield is a research fellow in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.