One More Time: Marriage Doesn’t Alleviate Poverty

Isaiah J. Poole

We’ve written time and time again about the research debunking the conservative canard that declining marriage rates contribute to high rates of poverty. Still, this argument is a hardy perennial, and with two of its leading proponents, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) now running for president, it’s time to highlight one key number: 9.3 million.

That, according to, is the number of people in married-parent families who live below the official poverty line. Add to that number the 6 million additional people in married households who are above the poverty line but still qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamp”) benefits, and that adds up to more than 15 million people.

In some states, including Paul’s state of Kentucky, there are more married couples living in poverty than there are unmarried couples. According to the wisdom of right-wing think tanks and politicians, that should not be. Rubio, for example, last year called marriage “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty.” Paul has said being “married with kids versus unmarried with kids is the difference between living in poverty and not.”

But, as John Adams once said, “facts are stubborn things.” And saying that the poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty is not only a grossly insufficient substitute for investing in low-income people and in their communities, it is an immoral response cloaked in ignorance and arrogance.

What conservatives (and many liberals) are not talking about is how our welfare programs, which should be helping families stay together and lift themselves out of poverty, have been under the guise of “reform” actually made less helpful.

“Temporary Assistance [for Needy Families or TANF, the formal name for the federal welfare program] is failing struggling, married families,” according to the TalkPoverty article. “Between 2000 and 2012, the number of married parents living in poverty increased 39 percent, but the already extremely low number of married parents being helped by TANF plummeted by 54 percent. In the majority of states today, fewer than 1,000 married parents receive Temporary Assistance. In Louisiana, for example, over 50,000 married parents live in poverty, but only about 50 of them receive Temporary Assistance.”

The emphasis of “welfare reform” was for the most part less about helping to lift people out of poverty and more about reducing the number of people on welfare and spending less tax dollars on the poor. That’s how we got the reductions in welfare rolls, but no reduction in poverty.

TalkPoverty recommends that we need a new wave of reform, this time focused on ensuring that we spend the resources we need on proven tools that help individuals and couples prosper financially. One successful model from the mid-1990s was the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which ensured that participants “had an adequate income to support themselves while searching for work or addressing issues that limited their work capacity, including through transitional jobs, re-employment, and other services.”

It was programs like these that actually encouraged couples to either get married or stay married, the research shows.

Unfortunately, the current structure of TANF makes operating rigorously tested programs like the Minnesota project “all but impossible for states,” TalkPoverty states. “Fixing this should be at the top of the list of reforms that would help struggling, two-parent families.”

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