Twenty eight years ago a Census Bureau study by Dr. Gordon Green, an economist and chief of the bureau's Government Division, revealed that poverty was not going up in those days because of lack of federal programs to support the poor, but because of family breakups. This was a splash of cold water on the face of social analysis in America since it contradicted the familiar trope that it is poverty that causes family breakups. In fact, to repeat, it is family breakup that causes chronic poverty in most cases.
Now the Census is out with another study. We see poverty growing again, even during relatively good times (2008, before the economic slump began to bite) and this time it is happening largely because families are not forming at all. Marriage is going out of style among the poor. It is not too much in style among the upper classes, either.
No one wants to talk about this as a public policy issue, but it is major. Some 3.7 million Americans fell into poverty in 2008, which, as I say, was well before the brunt of the recession was felt. Crucially, single mothers bearing children out of wedlock are five times more likely to fall into poverty than those women who are married.
Today, 40 percent of all children are born out of wedlock, a number comparable to the figure among blacks in the early 70s when Dr. Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York, put out his famous alarum about the collapsing black family. His warnings went largely unheeded and he personally was accused of racism for even talking about the subject. But today, the number of out of wedlock births among African Americans has climbed to 71.6 percent and the figure for Latinos is 51.3 percent. The problem now afflicts almost all ethnic groups. Traditional marriage is not supported, rewarded, and prized.
Few observers recall that shortly after the Green report at the Census President Ronald Reagan organized a Fairness for Families initiative to support married couples and families. It is not that payments for children are so important (they don't do much to help the marriage rate in Europe, for example), Rather, the need is for assistance and reaffirmation of the ideal of two parent families in raising of children. A big help would be the expansion of the personal exemption in the income tax to account for children. More than that, the Congress should open a study today to find all the ways that government impedes marriage formation--especially in welfare and health care--and to remove those impediments. The aim should be a pro-family policy that is economically and socially sound.
To advocate for the ideal of a two parent family is not to stigmatize or denigrate the single parent family. That should be obvious, but it is probably safest to underscore it. Indeed, single parents also need recognition and assistance.
For many social organizations and careless clergymen, helping the poor means enacting more federal spending programs. Such well-menaing people should take a look at what dependency ultimately does to damage, rather than help, the poor. If you want to help the poor, especially poor children, the need is not for more government, but more encouragement for families getting out of poverty the old fashioned way--by the mutual support of husbands and wives with children. The two parent family is not the only path out of poverty, but it is the one being most neglected and traduced today. Start by helping parents with children to keep more of their own money.