Earlier this month, the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution—two Washington, D.C.–based think tanks that typically occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum—released a joint report on poverty in America. The report, authored by an “ideologically balanced” working group of conservative, liberal, and centrist experts, lays out a comprehensive plan for fighting poverty that’s admirable for its emphasis on evidence-based solutions from across the political spectrum.
The report recommends a variety of policies aimed at increasing the skills and wages of low-income workers, closing the education gap, and increasing economic mobility. But it’s the section on family, particularly its emphasis on the declining institution of marriage and the perils of non-marital childbearing, that likely required particularly delicate negotiations between the working group’s more liberal and conservative scholars. The authors’ conclusion: Childbearing should be delayed until couples tie the knot, and marriage should be promoted as “the most reliable route to family stability and resources.”
The biggest problem with this recommendation? It turns out that no one—liberal, conservative, or in between—has figured out how to convince unmarried parents to say “I do.”
Non-marital childbearing has increased exponentially over the last 50 years. Over 40 percent of American children today are born to unmarried women; among African-American children, the number hovers above 70 percent. Many of these children are born to parents who live together, a type of parenting arrangement that, if stable and long-lasting, has the potential to offer the same benefits as marriage. But that’s a big if; in the United States, these unions often are substantially less stable than marriage—cohabiting parents are three times as likely to break up by their child’s fifth birthday than married parents.
This transformation of the American family has had significant and negative effects on low-income children. Research across the ideological spectrum clearly indicates that kids do best in stable, dual-parent households. Even after controlling for socioeconomic factors, studies show that children who grow up in single-parent households are poorer, less economically mobile, and more prone to a variety of behavioral issues than those raised by married parents.