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It's Not Just About the Ring Finger

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Thank you, Mona Charen. In an opinion piece published yesterday, the syndicated columnist offers a magic cure to the 56 million unmarried women of America who, in many cases, are just struggling to get by. Her prescription for all the single moms living on or below the poverty level in America is simple: Just get married.

"The collapse of marriage among the uneducated and partially educated has unquestionably been a social and economic disaster," Charen writes, and "...being raised by a single mother is a better predictor of poverty than race or ancestry." But Charen has a cure-all. The solution, she writes, is "rebuilding the marriage norm" and a "campaign to stress the importance of stable families."

Charen's comments follow her much-lampooned performance earlier in the week when she told a Heritage Foundation panel that "Women know that because of the nature of their bodies, because they carry and bear children and nurse and nurture children, that they need protection and support," and, "If we truly want women to thrive, we have to revive the marriage norm."

We all value marriage. I've been married for 34 years. But blaming a poor single mom for her poverty and only offering up a husband as salvation is demeaning, paternalistic and denies current ground truths.

Women who are on their own want good-paying jobs, economic security, and affordable childcare and education. In a poll of likely 2014 voters the Voter Participation Center conducted late last month with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps, we asked unmarried women to choose the best way to reduce poverty and expand social mobility. Do they believe more in raising wages, making college and job training affordable and insuring that they get paid if they or a child becomes ill? Or do they believe that marriage is the greatest tool to lift them out of poverty, and that we should eliminate any government programs that discourage marriage? The results were clear. By a 31-point margin, unmarried women said they see increased rising wages and opportunities as the best remedy for escaping poverty.

Tying the knot is a laudable goal and few social scientists would disagree that there are huge economic benefits to marriage. But conservatives, including Charen, Paul Ryan and Ari Fleischer, present marriage as a panacea and seem to forget all the other factors that contribute to poverty.

For starters, there's a built-in pay inequity in America. In 2011, unmarried women had average personal earnings of $35,440 -- just 63 percent of the annual earnings of married men. The Economic Policy Institute calculated that if employed unmarried women were paid the same as comparable men, they would earn an additional $5,884 per year, and their poverty rate would fall from 11.0 percent to 4.6 percent. If employed single mothers earned as much as comparable men, their poverty rate would decrease from 28.7 percent to 15.0 percent.

Unmarried women also are particularly likely to receive low wages. Women made up 62 percent of all minimum and sub-minimum wage workers, with unmarried women accounting for fully 49 percent of all such workers. And unmarried working mothers are hard hit by the absence of paid sick and family-care leave. For families with children headed by a single parent (the vast majority of whom are female), an absence from work of just four days in a month would place a two-child family with a single parent below the federal poverty line.

In her column yesterday, Charen doubled down on her premise, writing that the only reason so many unmarried women tend to support policies favored by Democrats is that they need a Big Government protector. "The decline of marriage inclines more women to vote Democrat. They are, quite understandably, looking for security," she writes.

But unmarried women are not looking for handouts. Or sugar daddies. What they want are sound economic policies that will increase wages, guarantee equal pay, expand opportunities and help provide for their families. It's not just about the ring finger, Mona, it's also about the helping hand. And an economy that works.

Page Gardner is president of the Voter Participation Center, www.voterparticipation.org