For today’s progressives, marriage doesn’t matter when it comes to fighting poverty in America. Melissa Boteach and Anusha Ravi of the Center for American Progress, for instance, dismissed a recent op-ed by George Will reporting that Millennials who put “marriage before the baby carriage” are much less likely to be poor.
In a column entitled “No, Young People Aren’t Poor Because They’re Not Married,” Boteach and Ravi argue that “[two] poor people getting married does not make anyone less poor,” noting that a majority of low-income families are in “families headed by married or unmarried partners.” Their underlying assumption is that, because marriage is not a poverty panacea for all low-income families (true), it must necessarily play no role in reducing poverty (false). Like other leftist commentators on marriage and poverty, Boteach and Ravi blame poverty among today’s young adults on forces entirely outside of their control: a tough job market and bad public policy.
The problem with the progressive approach to poverty is that it denies the importance of culture and character to household prosperity—especially when it comes to marriage. This isn’t to say that a tough job market and bad public policy are irrelevant to explaining why some Millennials are in poverty, but life choices substantially affect the odds of ending up poor.
Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies and I recently co-authored a report, The Millennial Success Sequence, which demonstrates and quantifies the extent to which early life choices correlate with personal affluence. Though young people take a variety of paths into adulthood—arranging school, work, and family in a dizzying array of combinations—one path stood out as most likely to be linked to financial success for young adults. Brookings scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have identified the “success sequence,” through which young adults who follow three steps—getting at least a high school degree, then working full-time, and then marrying before having any children, in that order—are very unlikely to become poor. In fact, 97 percent of Millennials who have followed the success sequence are not in poverty by the time they reach the ages of 28 to 34.
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