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Marriage may not be silver bullet for poverty, study says

Getting married may not be the panacea for poverty that many say it is, a new study argues.
Getting married may not be the panacea for poverty that many say it is, a new study argues.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Getting hitched can also hitch you to a better financial future – or so a slew of data shows.

But after years of the government throwing money at trying to promote marriage as a way to help single moms and their children out of poverty, some experts are arguing it’s time to try something different.

“We are continuing to spend money on … these healthy marriage initiatives and I think the evidence is now clear that these are not effective policies,” said Kristi Williams, an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University. “So, it’s time to start thinking about spending that money in a way that’s more likely to help single mothers and their children.”

A new briefing paper, written by Williams and released Monday by the Council on Contemporary Families, argues that even when single mothers do later marry, those marriages are not necessarily beneficial to the women and their children.

Williams points to a study finding that more than half of single moms who married were divorced by the time they reached ages 35 to 44. In many cases, she notes, women who marry and later divorce are worse off financially.

Children also don’t always benefit, she said. Her research found that the children of single mothers who later married did not often have extra physical or psychological advantages once they were adolescents.

Williams said she did see advantages for children whose biological parents later got and stayed married, but she notes that’s uncommon. A long-running project called the Fragile Families study found that only 16 percent of the low-income unwed mothers they studied were married to their child’s biological father five years after the child’s birth.

The government has long funded initiatives to encourage healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood, stemming from the welfare reform efforts that began in 1996.

Williams argues that policymakers might get more bang for their buck if they used that money for other efforts to improve the financial futures of young, low-income women. Those include programs to help reduce unintended pregnancies and ones that subsidized child care for children three years old and younger, she said.

The report comes as about four in 10 children in the United States are born outside of marriage, a sharp increase from decades past, according to the latest government data. Single mothers also face much higher rates of poverty than married parents, according to the Census Bureau.

Williams and others say their research has found that low-income women, like most Americans, do want to get and stay married. But, Williams said, they hesitate because they are realistic about how challenging it will be to have a successful marriage amid severe economic strain.

“In many ways it’s a rational decision, and that’s why we (think) that this sort of idea of promoting marriage is sort of misguided,” Williams said. “Women, in many ways, are probably more aware than the government of the challenges of having a beneficial marriage.”

Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said it’s not surprising to find that single mothers who later marry are less likely to have a successful marriage than those who get married before having kids.

“They are more likely to have all the attendant problems that ensue when you put the baby carriage before the marriage,” he said.

Still, Wilcox said he doesn’t think that means Americans should just make peace with very high rates of single motherhood. Instead, he said that promoting stable marriages before having children should be one tactic in helping poor, working-class Americans improve their financial and personal lives.

“Regardless of your ideological status, we have a crisis in this country when it comes to quality and stability of relationships for poor, working class (people),” Wilcox said. “Marriage is not a panacea for that crisis, but I would say it’s one part of the policy mix.”

Allison Linn is a reporter at CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn or send her an e-mail.