Friday, March 4, 2011

Marriage can be antidote to poverty

Portman (Josh Jensen/Wikimedia Commons)
Many Atlantans probably heard Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, when he appeared on the Michael Medved Show on February 28.  Huckabee and Medved discussed the Oscars and Natalie Portman’s pregnancy.  Both men agreed that the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of Portman, as well as other high profile stars, sent a “problematic message.”  Huckabee went on to say, “Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can’t get a job, and if it weren’t for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care.  And that’s the story that we’re not seeing.”  This week Huckabee, who won Georgia’s 2008 Republican presidential primary, has been taking heat for his comments. 

As it turns out, there is a lot of evidence to support Huckabee’s position.  The United States is a prosperous country by most standards, but there are always exceptions.  Consistently, just fewer than 15% of Americans are considered to live in poverty.  This number has remained relatively constant since the 1960s.  About 20% of Americans in poverty are under 18 years old.  .  Statistically, it is far more likely that members of single parent families will live in poverty than any other group.  This points to the breakdown of the family as a causative factor in child poverty.

Census data shows a dramatic increase in US divorce rates over the past half century.  The divorce rate rose sharply in the 1970s and remains high, although slightly lower than its highest point which was in 1979 and 1981.  Georgia has had a low divorce rate in the past, but it is rising because, even though the number of divorces is falling, the number of marriages is falling even more.  Three towns in Georgia (Dalton, Albany, and Warner Robins) are among the cities with the highest divorce rates in the nation.  The US divorce rate is one of the highest in the world.

The increase in divorce corresponds to the years following the implementation of President Johnson’s Great Society programs, specifically the expansion of welfare to include people who are not elderly or disabled.  Making welfare available to single parents removed a negative consequence of raising a child outside of marriage (although many other negative consequences remain).  The majority of teenage girls no longer believe that having a baby outside of marriage will cause problems in their life.

To be fair, statistics do show a decrease in the overall rate of poverty since the Great Society, at least until the current Great Recession.  This is largely due to a decrease in poverty in senior citizens.  This may be due to the implementation of Medicare, a health insurance program for the Americans age 65 and over.  By the standards of government social programs, Medicare is successful in that it did meet its goal of helping to reduce poverty of the elderly. 

On the other hand, Medicare is very expensive and getting more so.  In 2010, Medicare alone costs $452 billion, over 12% of the federal budget.  This figure alone does not reflect the true cost of Medicare because the program reimburses doctors at artificially low rates.  This means that doctors must make up those losses by charging other patients more.  More and more doctors are refusing to take Medicare patients at all.  Even charging below market rates for care, Medicare is projected to be insolvent by 2017, only six years from now.

Huckabee (David Ball/Wikimedia Commons)
Statistics show that marriage tends to be associated with lower rates of poverty.  The highest rates of poverty are in families headed by a single woman with children under eighteen.  Almost 40% of these families are under the poverty line.  One quarter of American kids are raised in single parent families and 84% of these families are headed by women.  Most of these women are divorced or separated (58%) or were never married at all (24%).  The idea that poverty is strongly linked to single parent families is borne out by statistics.

Intuitively this makes sense.  If you are a parent, you know how expensive it is to raise children.  In a two income family, both parents are working to pay for food, shelter, clothing, childcare, and other necessary expenditures.  When there are two parents but only one income, child care, a major expenditure is removed, as are costs associated with the second spouse’s job, such as transportation, business attire, and meals.  Additionally, the working spouse does not have to lose income or use sick days when a child is sick. 

On the other hand, a single parent family has only one income (although often multiple jobs) for all necessary expenditures.  This often includes childcare costs since the children cannot stay home alone while the parent earns an income.  When a child is sick, the parent often cannot work unless extended family members or friends can care for the child.  The difficulty and the costs are compounded when there is more than one child.  This is not to say that many or most single parents are not dedicated and loving parents, but they start at a tremendous disadvantage.

The societal costs of single parent families are not limited to the cost of government programs.  One of the most obvious costs involves the fact that children who are unsupervised are more likely to get into trouble.  Children from single parent families are more likely to act out and be aggressive.  They are also more likely to become unwed or divorced parents themselves, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

It should be in the government’s interest to reduce the number of failing marriages and out-of-wedlock births because this would reduce the number of Americans that are dependent on government entitlements.  Factors that are known to affect the chances of making marriage last include the age of a woman at the time of marriage, whether she was raised in an intact two-parent family, whether religion plays an important role, and whether she had a high income or lived in an area with a high median income, low male unemployment, and low poverty.  Additionally, people who divorce once are more likely to divorce if they marry again.  Unmarried cohabitation is more than twice as likely to result in a breakup as a marriage.

The government can act to reduce the divorce rate by repealing no fault divorce laws and requiring marriage counseling prior to divorce.  In Georgia, a divorce can be granted if only one spouse can establish that refusal to live with the other and that there is no hope of reconciliation.  In approximately 55% of divorces, only one spouse wants out of the marriage and there is no clearly defined cause.  Many of these marriages could be saved.  Further, the government could launch public awareness campaigns similar to anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns to promote marriage and marriage counseling. 

(Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons)
Ultimately, it is up to the spouses to fight for their own marriage and family.  Love alone is not enough to make a successful marriage.  It takes work and communication.  A series at Peachtree Community Church in Villa Rica recently covered the four communication patterns that most threaten marriage from the book Fighting for Your Marriage.  Withdrawal occurs when one spouse is unwilling to engage in important conversations.  Escalation occurs when spouses raise the stakes, making an argument more and more hostile.  Invalidation is when a spouse puts down another, either intentionally or not.  Negative interpretation occurs when one spouse sees the other’s behavior more negatively than was intended.  These communication patterns are found in over 90% of distressed marriages.  (The two-sermon series for February 13 and 20, 2011 is available for download at

Peachtree Community Church pastor David Reid also recently authored the book Leading to the Bedroom, a couple’s guide to more satisfying sex.  In the book, Reid points out that when faced with conflict, the result for most people is to either get angry or go passive.  Neither is good for communication in a marriage.  To strengthen a marriage, spouses must overcome these natural tendencies.  The ultimate result will be both a stronger marriage and a more intimate and exciting sexual relationship between the spouses.

It is up to the men of Georgia and the United States to step up and work for their marriages and families.  Traditionally, men are the head of the household, but over past decades there has been a tendency for men to become withdrawn and delegate their family responsibilities to women.  This is probably partly due to the fact that welfare makes it more acceptable for them to run out on their kids.  Media focus on sex and portrayals of strong women and shiftless men may also be a factor.  The fact that many boys from broken families grow up without a positive male role model undoubtedly also contributes to the vicious cycle.  All of these factors (and more) combine to make negative changes in the way society views families and parenting. 

The stability of the family is a key to America’s future stability and prosperity.  It is one of the most important issues that we face as a country and one that we must address. 

The Michael Medved Show airs weekdays in Atlanta from 3-6 p.m. on WGKA AM920.  The show can also be downloaded as a podcast on for a small fee.  Archives of the show, including the February 28 interview with Mike Huckabee, are also available on the website.

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