Poverty and the Family
LBJ Today
Peter Meilaender

This year marks the fiftieth ­anniversary of the war on poverty launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. On that day, President Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America” and promised that “we shall not rest until that war is won.” In recognition of this anniversary, we have been treated to a steady flow of articles and assessments evaluating the war on poverty’s success and asking to what extent we have achieved victory. Most of these assessments conclude—sometimes reluctantly, sometimes with a “we-told-you-so” note of justification—that, though the war on poverty has had some specific and limited successes, on the whole it has fallen well short of the lofty ambitions that inspired it and the goals it set for itself.

Interestingly, one could imagine a new, bipartisan war on poverty with more modest goals but a more realistic understanding of what might lead to success. In recent decades we have learned quite a bit about the factors that lead to and keep people in poverty. In particular, scholars on both the left and right agree that the decline of stable marriages and families has contributed significantly to poverty’s persistence in the US. Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution have written,

Changes in family composition have been a major force driving Americans into poverty. The story of family composition and poverty is straightforward. In most years, poverty in female-headed families is four or five times greater than poverty in married-couple families. High divorce rates, falling marriage rates, and rising nonmarital birthrates over the past three decades have more than doubled the share of children living with single mothers. (“Introducing the Issue,” The Future of Children, Vol. 17, No. 2: 4)

In Coming Apart (Crown Forum 2012), the American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray presented a wealth of data illustrating the relationship between poverty and family composition through his comparison of the semi-fictional towns of Belmont and Fishtown, populated respectively by America’s “new upper-” and “new lower-” classes. Murray emphasizes that these classes are characterized as much by their cultural as their economic differences. Among the most important factors accounting for the greater success of those living in Belmont is the significantly higher likelihood that they will get married, stay married, and avoid having children out of wedlock.

Readers not prepared to tackle Murray’s lengthy analysis and looking for a shorter discussion might consider a recent volume by Nick Schulz, Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure (AEI Press 2013). In one hundred short, clear pages, Schulz, while deliberately avoiding “values” debates over topics such as abortion or same-sex marriage, compiles a mass of evidence clarifying the links between poverty and changes in family structure such as increases in divorce, single-parent households, and children born out of wedlock. Just a few of the findings that he reports:

Haskins and Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, after reviewing Census Bureau data, found that “if young people finish high school, get a job, and get married before they have children, they have about a 2 percent chance of falling into poverty and nearly a 75 percent chance of joining the middle class by earning $50,000 or more per year.”

Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, in their book Growing Up with a Single Parent (Harvard 1994), report that “adolescents who have lived apart from one of their parents during some period of childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be ‘idle’—out of school and out of work—in their late teens and early twenties.”

A group of researchers from the Pew Research Center “compared the median household incomes of married adults with unmarried adults in 1960 and again in 2008. Half a century ago, the gap in household incomes was 12 percent. In 2008, the gap had grown to over 40 percent.”

This is just a small sampling from a large body of research confirming what is by now an indisputable fact: if you want to reduce poverty, you should want as many children as possible to grow up in stable families with their own two married parents.

We are accustomed to hearing conservatives talk about the importance of the traditional family unit as a building-block of society. In light of this evidence, however, it is clear that liberals, committed to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society and concerned with income inequality, should also make the health of the family a policy priority. Indeed, one could imagine this as the potential fulcrum of an important bipartisan coalition, in which politicians of the left and the right search in common for reforms to strengthen the family and simultaneously reduce poverty. In my more radical moments, I sometimes think that what America most needs is a new political party, perhaps the “American Families Party,” that would judge every proposed policy reform by its likely impact upon the family unit.

Yet it is difficult to imagine such a coalition actually forming, for at least two reasons. First, it is simply very hard to talk forthrightly about the personal and social benefits of marriage in a world where so many people are divorced or the product of broken families. To praise marriage as a social institution is, implicitly, to tell large numbers of people that they or their loved ones have failed at one of the most important tasks in human life. This is a message compassionate people—to say nothing of politicians seeking votes—­understandably prefer not to send.  The second reason, less obvious but perhaps more significant, is the importance of access to abortion among large portions of the left as an untouchable and fundamental personal right. Ross Douthat reached this conclusion in a recent New York Times column calling for just such a bipartisan effort to reduce poverty through strengthening marriage. He suggested that a combination of “wage subsidies and modest limits on unilateral divorce, or a jobs program and a second-trimester abortion ban” might have bipartisan appeal as an anti-poverty, pro-family strategy, a “hypothetical middle ground on marriage promotion.” But he nevertheless concluded that “[t]he chances of liberals embracing this hypothetical are... nonexistent,” because of their commitment to abortion (“More Imperfect Unions”).

Although there is no necessary reason why one cannot support both abortion rights and stable families, any attempt to combine these will be uneasy. The right to an abortion has come to rest, in American public discourse, on a far-reaching ideal of individual autonomy—the right, in the words of the Supreme Court, “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 US 851). It is not easy to defend both the bonds of the family and also this unfettered conception of personal autonomy. The linkage may often be subterranean rather than conscious, but many on the left instinctively recognize that a defense of the family calls into question the foundation of the abortion right, and they therefore shy away from it. (The extent to which the logic of abortion influences our domestic ­politics across a range of issues is an underexplored topic that deserves greater consideration.)

 Nevertheless, although what one might call the “penumbras formed by emanations” of personal autonomy make a pro-marriage ­coalition difficult to envision, the stakes are high enough, especially for poor children, that people on both sides of the aisle should continue to seek common ground where it is available. It seems at least possible that some pro-family reform efforts could gain bipartisan support. One strategy seeks to decrease the incidence of nonmarital childbearing through programs that discourage teen pregnancy, often through a combination of abstinence encouragement and sex education programs for those who are sexually active (Amato and Maynard 2007: 120–124). Another approach focuses on the problem of “unmarriageable” men. A report from the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values suggests that apprenticeship programs in which young men acquire valuable job skills from a trusted mentor, as well as innovative marriage and relationship programs within both the military and criminal justice system (where unfortunate numbers of African American men in particular are incarcerated for relatively minor offenses), can help many young men become more attractive potential marriage partners (The State of Our Unions 2012: 18–24).

Other reforms might seek to ease financial strains on families. We could increase the child tax credit, for example. More creatively, we might make the tax credit available only to married couples. Or we might introduce an additional tax credit targeted specifically at married couples that choose to forego a second income so that one parent can stay at home full-time with their children—a reform that would be far more helpful (and, no doubt, less costly) than the current efforts to relieve parents of their children through universal pre-school. Senator Marco Rubio recently entered the fray, in a speech marking the war on poverty’s ­anniversary—in which he identified marriage as “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty”—with a proposal for a “federal wage enhancement” aimed at making marriage more economically feasible for people holding low-wage jobs.

Finally, other policies might focus on preserving existing families through ­reducing the divorce rate. Paul Amato and Rebecca Maynard—writing in The Future of Children, a journal jointly produced by the Brookings Institution and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs—cite studies showing the effectiveness of “[m]arriage education and relationship programs... designed to improve couple communication, teach conflict resolution skills, increase mutual social support between partners, strengthen commitment, help troubled couples avoid divorce, and generally improve the quality and stability of marriages,” and they recommend increasing the percentage of couples who participate in such programs (Amato and Maynard 2007: 124–128). They suggest incentivizing such participation by “reduc[ing] the cost of a marriage license for couples who complete a premarital education workshop taught by a certified provider” (126). Retreating at least somewhat from no-fault divorce and making divorce modestly more difficult to obtain also merits consideration. Data suggest that many couples in the divorce process would welcome some form of therapy or counseling aimed at saving their marriage. Perhaps a waiting period between the filing of divorce papers and the actual finalization of a divorce, during which couples could be offered access to marriage counseling would reduce the rate of divorce.

Some may take issue with government efforts to promote marriage and the family on the grounds that public policy should be neutral among the choices that citizens make with respect to personal, intimate matters such as marriage. But neutrality among the choices of adults may be less defensible when it carries substantial costs for children who are ill-equipped to defend themselves and lack a voice in the adult political process. Moreover, such neutrality is simply a myth. As Maggie Gallagher has pointed out,

Government is deeply involved in the family lives of poor single parents and their children. Government actively instructs youths in the value of contraceptives, education, jobs, and delaying childbearing until the post-teen years. In this context, the absence of any ­government effort to support marriage does not represent neutrality. Instead, the message conveyed by the looming absence of the M-word in programs serving low-income couples and communities is this: The government does not believe that marriage matters (2004).

By now, however, the evidence is overwhelming: marriage does matter, and it matters a lot.

Strengthening marriage and the family is, to be sure, a daunting task. Family decline has been a product of diverse and interconnecting cultural factors, and public policy is a blunt instrument for effecting large cultural change. Fifty years ago, however, Lyndon Johnson told Americans, “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.” Those today who remain committed to his cause, whatever their political affiliation, should ­remember that ­poverty—like so much else—begins at home.


Peter Meilaender is Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.


Works Cited

Amato, Paul and Rebecca Maynard. “Decreasing Nonmarital Births and Strengthening Marriage to Reduce Poverty.” The Future of Children. Vol 17, No. 2 (Fall 2007): 117–41.

Douthat, Ross. “More Imperfect Unions.” New York Times. January 25, 2014.

Gallagher, Maggie. “Can Government Strengthen Marriage?: Evidence from the Social Sciences.” Report commissioned by the National Fatherhood Initiative, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and the Institute for American Values, 2004.

Haskins, Ron, Isabel Sawhill. “Introducing the Issue.” The Future of Children, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Fall 2007): 3–16.

Murray, Charles. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. New York, NY: Crown Forum, 2012.

Schultz, Nick. Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure. Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2013.

The National Marriage Project. The State of Our Unions, 2012.

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