Poverty, pregnancy and marriage: a conservative’s view

Last week, Republicans adopted a platform that argued in favor of limiting marriage and requiring at least some women to pay more for birth control. This week, Democrats are reminding viewers over and over that they support expanding marriage to gays and lesbians and making all manner of contraception freely available.

Against that backdrop, the conservative Heritage Foundation released a report Wednesday highlighting the rapid increase in out-of-wedlock births and the high incidence of poverty among children being raised by single mothers. Although author Robert Rector appears to confuse correlation with causation, his study challenges both parties to talk about marriage and birth control in a very different context -- namely, their relationship to socioeconomic status.

Rector notes that out-of-wedlock births increased steadily from 6% of all children born in the mid-1960s to 41% today. What he doesn’t mention is that poverty rates have fluctuated over that period but are lower today than they were five decades ago. Those two data sets show that becoming a parent while single isn’t a ticket straight to the poor house.

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Still, Rector’s report also points out that nearly 71% of the poor families with children are led by a single parent. Out-of-wedlock birthrates are highest among black and Latino families, yet both black and Latino households led by two-parent families had dramatically lower poverty rates.

Out-of-wedlock births aren’t confined to the callow or the careless. More than 60% involved women between the ages of 20 and 30. And according to Rector, “research on lower-income women who have become pregnant outside of marriage (either as minors or adults) reveals that virtually none of these out-of-wedlock pregnancies occurred because of a lack of knowledge about and access to birth control.” Instead, “most women who become pregnant and give birth out of wedlock strongly desire children.”

Low-income women also typically want to be married and own a home, Rector asserts, but they don’t recognize how much they lengthen the odds of achieving those goals by having a child first. “They have no practical plan to make this dream a reality,” he writes. “Sadly, their choice to have children before marriage and before forming a stable, committed relationship with the child’s father usually leads to the opposite outcome, dooming mothers and children to lives of poverty and struggle.”

So, what should policymakers do? Rector argues for a public education campaign, similar to the effort to curb smoking, to spread the message that having kids should wait until after marriage. That’s an idea social conservatives could embrace, but it seems like an intrusive, “nanny state” approach to the problem. Rather than lecturing women, it would be better to address the issues that make many of the poor see motherhood as a better path than getting a degree and pursuing a career -- or that put a degree and a career out of the reach of many who’ve already had children.


More practically, Rector suggests that lawmakers eliminate the provisions in state and federal aid programs that provide less help to married couples than to similarly situated single mothers. “The simplest way to accomplish this,” Rector writes, “would be to increase the value of the earned income tax credit (EITC) for married couples with children; this could offset the anti-marriage penalties existing in other programs such as food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid.” That’s a tax credit many Republicans -- including the party’s nominee for vice president, Paul D. Ryan -- have sought to roll back.


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