For some years, now, I have been intrigued by the term “child poverty”, which seems to have arisen over the past 15-20 years. It seems to me that all children are poor, in that they (usually) have no income of their own but rely on their parents for what they need. Would it not make more sense to talk about family poverty?

On the other hand, maybe child poverty is a way of directing attention to families below the poverty line, as opposed to individuals. In any case, a new background paper from the Heritage Foundation points out, for those really concerned about child poverty, that the “greatest weapon” against it in America (and countries like it, presumably) is marriage.

It is pretty obvious, really. If children do not have their father in the home they are missing not only one of their main emotional supports but the parent who would normally be the main breadwinner when they are young. Their mother will not, usually, be able to take on that role because she must look after the children as well. She will therefore depend on welfare assistance to provide for herself and the children — especially if the father does not contribute. And public assistance usually amounts to less than a full-time working wage.

So here is the data:

According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2008 was 36.5 percent. The rate for married couples with children was 6.4 percent. Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent.

Education makes some difference to poverty, but marriage makes more:

Some of this difference in poverty is due to the fact that single parents tend to have less education than married couples, but even when married couples are compared to single parents with the same level of education, the married poverty rate will still be more than 75 percent lower. Marriage is a powerful weapon in fighting poverty. In fact, being married has the same effect in reducing poverty that adding five to six years to a parent’s level of education has.

However, education is important in this way:

As Chart 5 shows, more than two-thirds of births to women who were high school dropouts occurred outside of marriage. Among women who had only a high school degree, slightly more than half of all births were out of wedlock. By contrast, among women with at least a college degree, only 8 percent of births were out of wedlock, and 92 percent of births occurred to married couples.

The U.S. is steadily separating into a two-caste system with marriage and education as the dividing line. In the high-income third of the population, children are raised by married parents with a college education; in the bottom-income third, children are raised by single parents with a high school degree or less.

These single mothers, by the way, are not, on the whole, teenagers; they are young adult women aged between 19 and 29. This is not a “teen pregnancy” problem.

Unwed birth rates vary strongly by race, being highest among black, non-Hispanic women, but because the white population is most numerous, the largest number of non-marital births is to non-Hispanic white women. Marriages reduces poverty markedly for all racial groups.

The Heritage paper — by Robert Rector — uses mainly US Census data, but also the findings of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey conducted by Princeton and Columbia universities. This shows that, based on the earnings of fathers at the time of the birth, if single mothers married the actual biological father of their children only 18 per cent of them would be poor compared with 56 per cent if they remain unmarried.

Unfortunately, after a 50-year trend, there is an entrenched cultural attitude among lower income women of desiring children before marriage — something explored in a 2005 book by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas; Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. While many initially hope to marry the father of their child, the fact is that few of them will; unmarried parents tend to drift apart.

But are working class/less educated men too poor to marry? Robert Rector looks at this claim and finds this is not true on the whole — “Eight out of 10 unmarried fathers were employed at the time of their child’s birth.” Perhaps, though, as a recent article by sociologists W Bradford Wilcox and Andrew J Cherlin suggests, that has been changed by the recession, which for the working class has been largely a “mancession”.

Wilcox and Cherlin seem to suggest that changes in the labour market would help bridge the marriage gap between the working class and middles class. Rector’s suggestions are: government promotion of marriage, and reducing anti-marriage penalties in welfare (anomalies that act as an incentive not to marry).

All three approaches would surely help to reverse a culture that impoverishes families, especially the children — both materially and emotionally.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet