In setting out to confront a problem, it’s necessary to
understand its causes in order to apply realistic solutions. Child poverty in
America provides a painful illustration of what comes of ignoring that truism.
Since the mid-1960s, the government has spent more than $22
trillion fighting poverty. In that time the rate of child poverty has dropped a
measly 1.5 percent — from 20.7 percent in 1965 to 19.2 percent in 2015,
according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
A drop of 1.5 percent is better than no drop. But not by much.
What accounts for these disappointing results? The explanation,
says Patrick Fagan, is that the War on Poverty largely ignored “the role of
marriage in reducing poverty.”
“Poverty is most prevalent in non-intact families [and]
single-parent families are significantly more likely to fall into poverty than
are married-couple families,” he writes.
Fagan, a social scientist specializing in marriage and family,
offers this analysis on his Marripedia website. If he’s correct — and the
numbers bear him out — the central problem underlying child poverty is family
But the problem underlying family breakdown is essentially
cultural. Or, if an old-fashioned word can be pardoned: moral. What we’re
witnessing here is in large measure a product of a collapse of marriage-related
Critics dismiss this line of reasoning as moralistic, but it’s
not. There is nothing invidiously judgmental about tracing a glaring social
problem to its roots in destructive human behavior. In fact, if there is any
moralism at work here, it’s the moralism of critics who are committed to
defending moral libertarianism.
The good news is that the two-parent family remains the most
common form for children. Last year, the Census Bureau tells us, 69 percent of
the 73.7 million American kids under age 18 lived in such families. That was
down from 88 percent in 1960 but still encouragingly high. Meanwhile, though,
the percentage living with single mothers rose from 8 percent in 1960 to 23
percent in 2016 (those living with single fathers went from 1 percent to 4
Now take a look at child poverty. The link to single-parenting is
clear. Over 2 million American children live in single-parent families, more
often than not headed by never- married single mothers. And in 2015 nearly half
of all the kids living with never-married mothers were in poverty.
Fagan writes: “While many single mothers work wonders and raise
their children well despite the obstacles they encounter, for many others the
challenge is too great and their children suffer the consequences. Children
raised in a single-parent family tend to complete fewer years of schooling,
exhibit behavior problems, commit acts of delinquency, and participate in
increased sexual activity.”
But don’t place all the burden of responsibility on
single-parenting. Kids living with cohabiting couples aren’t doing much better
than those raised by single parents. In each case, nearly half the children
live in poverty.
For the most part, politicians seem unable or unwilling to come
to grips with these facts. Instead, family and child problems are routinely
analyzed reductively — reduced to dollars and cents — with plans such as job
creation and raising the minimum wage presented as solutions.
Economic factors are indeed important. I am not making an
argument for spending less on poverty. Indeed, we should probably spend more,
precisely to encourage marriage among low-income sectors of the population.
But taking only economic factors into account shortchanges
children and short-circuits solutions. A society that allows family structure
to collapse in order to facilitate moral libertarianism is buying long-range
trouble and hurting kids.
Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington and
author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall,
and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.