Marriage won’t end poverty

Photo by Lauren Heavner used under a Creative Commons License.

Poverty in Oklahoma is at a six-year high. Recent Census numbers showed that more than one in six Oklahomans – and almost one in four children – live in poverty. Even as we are lauded for our economic successes, the chronically high poverty rate shows that large numbers of Oklahomans are not getting ahead.

Many factors contribute to keeping people in poverty, including low wages, lack of education, mass incarceration, racial discrimination, food insecurity, and limited access to health care. Yet to hear some tell it, these long-lasting problems have a simple solution: marriage.

Their argument rests on the fact that a high percentage of single-parent families live in poverty. However, millions of married Americans do, too.

A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shines a light on this often-ignored population of married families in poverty. The report finds:

More than 7 million married adults under age 65 in the United States have incomes below the austere federal poverty line—currently about $23,000 for a married couple with two children. Among parents living below the poverty line and caring for minor children, 43 percent are married (and not separated). There are more married parents with incomes below the poverty line than there are never-married ones, and more food-insecure adults live in households with children headed by married couples than in ones headed by just a man or woman.

We see a similar pattern in Oklahoma. Out of all of the Oklahoma children in poverty, about one-third (33.6 percent) live in married-couple families, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. That’s over 70,000 children.

The poverty numbers don’t paint the full picture. Most agree that the federal poverty line is long-outdated, and research has found that 200 percent of the poverty line is about the minimum needed to meet a family’s basic needs. Families making less than that are considered low-income, and they are often one layoff or medical emergency away from falling into poverty. If you look at the Oklahoma children in these low-income families, more than half (52 percent) live in 2-parent households.

The CEPR study points out that those working to promote marriage should be equally concerned about the invisibility of marital poverty. It states:

The idealization of marriage may be fine when a married couple’s finances and prospects are “for better.” But this idealization may weaken marital bonds when a couple’s finances move in the “for worse” direction. If a married couple’s income falls precipitously after a spouse’s job is outsourced, their marriage may no longer live up to the idealized view that married people aren’t poor.

Indeed, part of the reason poverty and single parenthood are so closely correlated is that poverty causes divorce. Arguments about money are the number one cause of divorce. Divorce rates are highest in relatively poor Southern states, including Oklahoma, and lowest in the wealthier Northeast. There’s even evidence that, rather than teen births causing poverty, it’s poor economic prospects that lead young women to choose to become single mothers. As Matt Yglesias writes:

Where poor people can see that hard work and “playing by the rules” will reward them, they’re pretty likely to do just that. Where the system looks stacked against them, they’re more likely to abandon mainstream norms.

It also cannot be ignored that Oklahoma has some of the highest rates in the nation of violence against women by their intimate partners. If a relationship becomes abusive, a battered spouse and children are much better off escaping that environment, even if it means reduced income.

Certainly dual incomes and a supportive partnership can be a great asset for low-income families, and the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative has done useful work to teach relationship and parenting skills and improve access to family support services. However, those who put forward marriage as the solution to poverty, while denigrating economic supports for low-income families, are confusing the symptom with the disease. If we want to strengthen marriage and reduce poverty, we need measures that will improve economic security for all families: more living wage jobs, better access to health care and child care, and a strong safety net.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

One thought on “Marriage won’t end poverty

  1. Interesting OPI blog. See link below. Another interesting blog from Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves, Brookings, on the impact of “marriage effect” on outcomes of poor children. As noted in OPI blog, it is not simple. The BI blog also discusses where the policy the focus should be. There is solid social science research that is too often neglected at the policy level.

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