America suffers from a poverty crisis—but not the sort that can be alleviated by food stamps or free healthcare. America’s poverty lies within the family—a poverty of belonging in marriage between fathers and mothers. The biggest cause of poverty is rejection (splitting apart) between parents.
According to the latest census report, 8.6 million families were in poverty in 2015. Poverty is principally the problem of non-intact family structures. Five times as many female-headed families (no husband present) and almost three times as many male-headed families (no wife present) as married-couple families were in poverty in 2015. Although welfare may artificially reduce poverty statistics on paper, in reality it compounds at least two significant obstacles to the poor: first, welfare replaces personal agency with government reliance, thereby robbing individuals of their feeling of self-worth; second, it artificially covers deeper wounds and allows them to fester.
Research shows that family intactness, along with high school graduation rates, play the largest role in diminishing child poverty. Men raised in intact families work 156 hours longer and earn $6,534 more than their counterparts raised in single-parent families. Married men—especially those with children—earn 26 percent more than their non-married counterparts. They have higher incomes, more net worth, and greater year-to-year net worth growth. Marriage is also an important driver of economic mobility.
In addition to improving financial hardships, intact married families simultaneously treat children’s physical, mental, and spiritual privation. Children raised in married families tend to have higher educational achievement and attainment, have a better relationship with their parents, are less likely to commit crime, and are less likely to have a teenage pregnancy. Children who grow up in non-intact families are more likely to suffer from poorer physical and mental health, abuse drugs and alcohol, and partake in sexually promiscuous behavior.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Hillary Clinton accurately stated that “The true measure of any society is how we take care of our children.” However, our children’s wellbeing cannot be measured solely by the dollar sign tied to their family in a census report. As Mother Teresa famously said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” MARRI data shows that 54 percent of youth experience the rejection of a non-intact family by the time they reach age 18. Even more disconcerting, only 17 percent of black youth grow up with their married mother and father. Whereas family intactness fosters an environment of belonging among youth that increases their likelihood of excelling in education, health, and economic security, family brokenness creates a sense of rejection that can impede proper growth.
A nation is only as strong as the relationship between its citizens, and a lack of strong families weakens human, social, and moral capital, which in turn directly affects the finances of the United States. A holistic and effective long-term plan to reduce material and relational poverty in America must encourage intact married families.