Is Marriage a Poverty-Buster?

Apr 11, 2012

This post originally appeared April 11 on Huffington Post.

By Jodie Levin-Epstein

"The Myth of the Disappearing Middle Class" (Washington Post, March 29, 2012) by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Ron Haskins asserts that the lack of opportunity in 21st century America is largely driven by the failure of individuals to behave responsibly, particularly the failure of parents to marry.

"The Myth" demonstrates the mathematical attributes of marriage (it also raises a host of other issues reverberating in the blogosphere). The arithmetic seems hard to beat: two incomes must be better than one. Haskins, who steered welfare reform for House Republicans, cares about results; here he is typically careful with his data and provides a lot of it:

Brookings Institution calculations of census data for 2009, a deep recession year, show that adults who graduated from at least high school, had a job, and were both at least age 21 and married before having children had about a 2 percent chance of living in poverty and a better than 70 percent chance of making the middle class -- defined as $65,000 or more in household income. People who did not meet any of these factors had a 77 percent chance of living in poverty and a 4 percent chance of making the middle class (or higher). Unless young Americans begin making better decisions, the nation's problems with poverty and inequality will continue to grow.

Marriage (before children), high school graduation, and working are all great goals shared by many across the political spectrum. The sequence makes sense. Policies and programs to achieve the goals are valuable. But Haskins' view scrambles together the data on good outcomes with the idea that gumption can move anyone into a higher-income cohort. The numbers simply celebrate how those who have a foot on the ladder can move up it. Haskins' analysis considers the importance of missing rings but is essentially silent on the role of missing rungs.

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