National Catholic Register


Marriage And Poverty

If you want to help the poor, promote marriage.

BY The Editors

June 10-16, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/5/07 at 9:00 AM


If you want to help the poor, promote marriage. That’s the finding of scholars like Kay Hymowitz. Poverty is a real problem, even in the affluent United States. The rich-poor gap is deep and wide. But many programs that are created to deal with poverty ignore the very clear roots of the problem.

Hymowitz wrote Marriage and Caste in America, whose findings were recently summarized by Father John Flynn on Zenit.

She demonstrates how the breakdown of the family isn’t just a personal tragedy for those involved. It’s an economic disaster for them — which means it affects us all.

A combination of divorce and out-of-wedlock births is producing a nation of separate and unequal families, and leaving millions of children at a severe disadvantage.

It used to be unthinkable for women to have children outside of wedlock — and just as unusual for couples to divorce.

But the upheaval of the 1960s changed both those situations. Divorce became much more common, and having children outside of marriage became more common right along with it.

By the turn of the 21st century, the situation had changed dramatically — but not uniformly.

Among college-educated mothers, only 10% were living without husbands.

Among mothers with less education than that, 36% were living without husbands.

By 2004, 1 in 3 births was to a single mother. But of those, the vast majority had low levels of education and were poor.

The elevated number of single mothers goes a long way toward explaining the persistently high level of poverty among children in the United States, according to Hymowitz. No fewer than 36% of female-headed families live below the poverty line, compared with 6% of married couples.

It’s a vicious circle.

Life is hard for the women caught in this situation. It isn’t often better for their children. They have lower grades and educational qualifications compared to children who grow up with married parents. This holds true even after allowing for differences in race, family background and IQ.

And so, these children are also likely to earn less and have a lower occupational status.

Thus are the social and economic inequalities of one generation perpetuated in the next.

It can seem like there is no way out. Hymowitz points out that a mother’s remarriage doesn’t help. Her children’s outcomes still resemble those of children from single-parent families.

Statistics back up what the Church has always taught: Getting married and staying married is the best way to help order society and give children what they need.

Children brought up by a married couple have greater security, peace of mind and order in their lives. They are also more likely to want to get and stay married themselves.

Hymowitz dedicates a substantial portion of her book to examining what happened with black families, where the trend to single motherhood started much earlier.

Already in the mid-1960s, critics such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., warned that the breakdown of the black family was part of the reason they were not achieving economic equality with whites. Voices such as Moynihan’s were, however, in large part ignored, and we now run the risk of producing another unequal caste, those children born to unmarried mothers, Hymowitz argues.

It is inescapably true: Strong families that provide plenty of parental oversight, along with robust cultural and moral values, are the best way to fight the cycle of poverty.

Today’s front-page story provides some hope. Divorce, illegitimacy and teen pregnancy rates have declined. As well, family values and marriage seem to be enjoying a resurgence of support.

The danger, however, as Father John Flynn pointed out, is that that this could be restricted to just one group in society, namely, the children fortunate enough to count on two parents. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput famously said (citing the Last Judgment passage of Matthew): “If we forget the poor, we’ll go to hell.”

Catholics fortunate enough to have the strength of marriage on their side need to share the wealth of the Church’s teaching on marriage as well as their material wealth with the world.