America’s five-decade war on poverty has made quite clear which social ill is most closely tied to child poverty. Yet, we haven’t taken the first shot at it. Fortunately, some Georgians are finally ready to take the fight where it needs to go.
I’m talking about the breakdown of the two-parent family and births out of wedlock. No other social factor comes closer to explaining why some people are poor and others aren’t.
Not education: In Georgia, the child of two married high school dropouts is less likely to be poor than the child of a single mother who has taken some college classes. More striking, a single mother with a college degree is more likely to live in poverty than are two married high school grads with a child.
Education matters. It’s just not the most important factor when it comes to child poverty.
Nor is race or ethnicity: Poverty rates are higher in Georgia for blacks and Hispanics than for whites. However, a white single parent is almost four times more likely to be poor than are married black parents, and slightly more likely than are married Hispanic parents. Births to unwed women are rising across racial groups.
Perhaps no statistic gets at it more quickly than these two: Three-quarters of poor families with children in Georgia are unmarried. And marriage drops the probability of child poverty in Georgia by 82 percent.
“The collapse of marriage … is the primary reason that you have child poverty,” the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector said Wednesday in Atlanta.
Rector was in town at the behest of the Georgia Family Council, which just launched a multiyear initiative called Breakthrough Georgia to address the real roots of poverty.
While GFC will seek some new legislation to help the cause, it’s not going to wait around for government solutions. The idea is to find private experts and community groups close to the problems, and raise private funds to pay for the programs they develop.
“Government can only do so much,” said GFC President Randy Hicks, especially when it’s already “stretched thin” financially. And existing welfare programs often exacerbate the problem by giving more money to mothers who aren’t married.
The first task is to identify why so many Georgia women are having children before marriage — already 45 percent of all births in the state and, without action, likely a majority within five years, Rector predicted.
It’s not just teens. There are twice as many unwed births to mothers over 30 than to mothers under 18. Sixty percent are to women in their 20s.
Nor is it a matter of disdain for marriage, Rector said: “These mothers … esteem the institution of marriage.”
“[But] their understanding of it tends to be idealized,” he said, “like you only marry when you’re in the middle class.”
For a starting place, Rector said, Breakthrough Georgia simply needs to tell women unmarried births are a problem.
“If you want to reduce a behavior in society, you have to tell people,” he said, making an analogy to smoking. “You have never told a single one of these young women … that having a child without being married is the royal root to persistent child poverty.”
The compounding effect of generation after generation of unwed mothers means we are “effectively dividing into two social castes,” Rector said. One with the social knowledge to save child-rearing for marriage, and one without it.
Much of the inequality in society flows from that gap. That’s the gap to bridge.
– By Kyle Wingfield