04/10/2012 10:15 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Is Marriage a Poverty-Buster?

"The Myth of the Disappearing Middle Class" (Washington Post, March 29, 2012) by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Ron Haskins asserts that the lack of opportunity in 21st century America is largely driven by the failure of individuals to behave responsibly, particularly the failure of parents to marry.

"The Myth" demonstrates the mathematical attributes of marriage (it also raises a host of other issues reverberating in the blogosphere). The arithmetic seems hard to beat: two incomes must be better than one. Haskins, who steered welfare reform for House Republicans, cares about results; here he is typically careful with his data and provides a lot of it:

Brookings Institution calculations of census data for 2009, a deep recession year, show that adults who graduated from at least high school, had a job, and were both at least age 21 and married before having children had about a 2 percent chance of living in poverty and a better than 70 percent chance of making the middle class -- defined as $65,000 or more in household income. People who did not meet any of these factors had a 77 percent chance of living in poverty and a 4 percent chance of making the middle class (or higher). Unless young Americans begin making better decisions, the nation's problems with poverty and inequality will continue to grow.

Marriage (before children), high school graduation, and working are all great goals shared by many across the political spectrum. The sequence makes sense. Policies and programs to achieve the goals are valuable. But Haskins' view scrambles together the data on good outcomes with the idea that gumption can move anyone into a higher-income cohort. The numbers simply celebrate how those who have a foot on the ladder can move up it. Haskins' analysis considers the importance of missing rings but is essentially silent on the role of missing rungs.

The question really ought to be what do we do when individual responsibility is no match for the economic forces that can envelop people as they move toward the desired goals? To note a few:

  • Graduation from high school is particularly challenging for students enrolled in the nation's dysfunctional "drop out factories," which, by definition, graduate fewer than 60 percent of their students; while the good news is that the number of such schools declined 23 percent between 2002-2010, about 2 million students are still trapped in these failed institutions.
  • Graduation from high school, while far better than dropping out, too often fails to adequately help job seekers. In March 2012, adults age 25 and over who had high school degrees faced an unemployment rate of 8 percent.
  • Employment for youth is generally precarious, but within communities of color unemployment is a crisis: among those looking for work, youth unemployment (ages 16-24) stood at 16.5 percent in February 2012, essentially double the overall rate of 8.3 percent; black youth employment is more than triple the overall rate at 26 percent (large differences by race appear even among college graduates; unemployment for white college grads in 2010 was 4.2 percent, while for African Americans it was 7.3 percent).
  • Providing a child quality early care is out of reach for too many families: only one in six children federally-eligible for child care assistance receives any help. In 22 states, families seeking child care assistance face waiting lists or frozen intake.

But is marriage invariably a poverty-buster? It turns out that one plus one does not always add up to two stable incomes. Particularly for those with precarious incomes the decision to get hitched includes a special calculation that adds in an assessment of economic instability and liability. As Stephanie Coontz, an expert on marriage observes, a woman "will certainly end up better off financially if she marries a man who is able to keep a job and is willing to share his resources. But she also has to weigh the very real possibility that he will become an economic liability if he loses his job or misuses the couple's resources." Income instability comes in many forms, not just a worry about job loss. Research that tracked young men ages 18 to 32 has shown that "changing jobs and having a large number of jobs end up lowering wage rates and reducing marriage rates."

Marriage may be more readily achieved by those who can woo with promises of economic stability. As reported in "Marriage is for the Rich", the rates of marriage are dramatically higher at higher incomes (even while rates are declining at all incomes). For low-wage workers, the math of marriage in which one plus one adds up and becomes two incomes may be true only infrequently over time. That creates instability. And while all workers may risk a job or earnings loss, there may be a low-income tipping point where instability feels boundless, not just some blip from which to bounce back.

For some low-income couples, a future that anticipates economic liability makes it tough to tie the knot. It seems the poor and the rich share a crush on stability. So, when Haskins concludes "Yes, the nation needs its safety net, but improvements in personal responsibility would have a greater and more lasting impact on poverty and opportunity," his assertion begets a question for all of us. Do you think factors such as limited educational opportunity and jobs that are inherently precarious (e.g. hours that are unpredictable) make it more difficult to succeed even for those who are trying to reach each benchmark, including marriage?

I do.