There is little question that children are most likely to flourish when they are raised by their married parents—but does that mean that the government should encourage single mothers to get married? In a brief report published by the Council for Contemporary Families, Kristi Williams, associate professor of sociology at the Ohio State University, argues that the marriages of single mothers are not necessarily beneficial to the women or their children. Therefore, she concludes, taxpayer-funded programs like those of the Healthy Marriage Initiative should not promote marriage as a way to help single mothers and their kids climb out of poverty.
The research is indeed clear that when women who have children out of wedlock later get married, in many instances the marriage does not last. It isn’t only that these women can’t find men who are good marriage material. They themselves often are not good marriage material, either. Those who participate in government-funded marriage and relationship programs often have never been taught relationship skills, don’t know what a healthy relationship or marriage looks like, and don’t think that marriage would make a big difference in their lives or the life of their child.
The programs were and are aimed at addressing these issues by empowering people with knowledge about the benefits of healthy marriage and teaching the signs of unhealthy relationships along with the necessary skills to address them. Some government-funded marriage initiatives even include job and career advancement classes, since stably employed couples are more apt to have a lasting marriage. In other words, while the programs aren’t 100% effective, they’re meant to prevent exactly the kinds of problems that Williams describes in her brief: relationship conflict, divorce, and economic struggles. In some cases they achieve modest success.
Moreover, the government-funded programs Williams refers to actually reach people at various stages in life, including but not limited to low-income single moms. Some initiatives teach healthy dating relationship skills to high school students and to people interested in marriage, thus preparing them to build more stable and satisfying relationships in the future. Others teach the advantages of marriage to unmarried couples expecting a child together.
Williams further cites findings that low-income women, like most Americans, want to get and stay married, but they hesitate because they anticipate how challenging it will be to have a successful marriage amid severe economic strain. That economic strain often is due at least in part to the loss of government aid that low-income women face if they choose to marry the father of their children. In this way the government is undermining its efforts.
Research released by the CDC in 2010 clearly indicates that children who live in a home with their married mother and father are generally healthier, more likely to have access to health care, and less likely to have definite or severe emotional or behavioral difficulties than children living in non-nuclear families. According to the 2010 Census, only 6 percent of children under the age of 18 living in a home with their two married biological parents were living in poverty, compared to over 40 percent of children under the age of 18 who lived with their single mother. Obviously this gap is partly attributable to the different backgrounds and education levels of single and married parents, but most research suggests that family structure also has a causal effect on income levels and child poverty.
Williams suggests that the government might get more bang for their buck if they used the $150 million spent annually on marriage and fatherhood initiatives to instead fund programs to improve the financial futures of young, low-income women, including helping to reduce unintended pregnancies and subsidizing child care for children under four. Currently, the government spends nearly $1 trillion annually on 80 services for poor and low-income Americans (including subsidized child care). The $150 million spent annually on promoting marriage and relationship skills is a rounding error by comparison.
To stop promoting the benefits of marriage, given its limitations, would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is no question that the poverty of many single-parent families is a multifaceted problem with a multifaceted answer: preventing unplanned pregnancies, teaching relationship skills, improving schools in low-income communities, and more. As Ruby Payne outlines in her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, poverty is not just financial. These days, it often also entails growing up without a father and later lacking stable and satisfying romantic relationships. Surely those problems are worth addressing along with financial deprivation.