Poverty Isn't Just a Single-Parents Problem

The poverty rate for married couples with children has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2000.


For years now, we've been hearing that single parenthood is at the root of American poverty. If unmarried mothers would just settle down, the argument went, then our national poverty rate would go down, too. But new data show how wrong that argument is. Half of poor parents raising kids under 18 are now married, according to the report just released from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The poverty rate for married couples with children is going up, having increased 47 percent since 2000.

Single parents and their kids have it hard, too—and there are plenty of them. As Karen Kornbluh recently pointed out here at The Atlantic, the U.S. has the world's highest percentage of children under 15 living in households led by single parents, most of whom are mothers. Almost half of those kids live in poverty, an appalling fact that Kornbluh rightly blames on the lack of paid leave and affordable childcare.

But the absence of those supports, which make it easier for workers to keep their jobs while taking care of their kids, is weighing down married parents, too. When you add the recession into the mix, it's easy to see why poverty is climbing particularly high among married couples with kids.

The bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent fall of wages and rise of unemployment affected everyone. Married couples who don't have kids have seen their poverty rate climb 22 percent since 2000, for instance. And single mothers have experienced roughly the same size increase in that time, likely because they have always been much more financially vulnerable. But, according to Shawn Fremstad, author of the CEPR report, "Married couples with kids are even more recession-sensitive," having more expenses and less flexibility than people without kids and further to fall than single parents.

The point isn't to vie for the distinction of being the worst off, of course, but to get a more accurate understanding of poverty so we might make a little more headway on getting rid of it. The single mom narrative—specifically the idea that having a child out of wedlock causes poverty—has stubbornly held on to the public imagination since the days of Murphy Brown and before.

Brown, you may remember, was the fictional news anchor at the heart of her own sitcom who became the cautionary poster-mother for conservatives when she had a child on her own. No doubt part of the hubbub back then was a reaction to the fact that family structure was changing. But that was in the early '90s, when, for the first time in our nation's history, more than a quarter of mothers were single (compared with five percent 30 years earlier) and Murphy was sporting a Farrah-do and suits with shoulder pads.

Today, the number of unmarried mothers is holding fairly steady. And more of those mothers are working as women's employment has increased over the years. Even more important, the notion that being a single mother leads to poverty—as opposed to the other way around—has been debunked, or at least be proven to be way more complicated than that. Kathryn Edin, a professor of public policy at Harvard, provides perhaps the best exploration of the relationship between poverty and single motherhood in Promises I Can Keep, her book on the myriad reasons that poor women put motherhood before marriage.

Yet, the single mom storyline still drives some of the responses to poverty, including marriage promotion programs, which were begun under President George W. Bush and continue, though in a diminished way, under Obama. The new data on poor married parents is evidence that a more nuanced response is in order.

"Poverty and economic insecurity are about a lot more than having children out of wedlock," says Fremstad, who notes that many of the people now viewed as "single" in poverty statistics actually live with a partner. "There are a lot of people who, if they said 'I do,' would still be in the same boat." Fremstad also says that the data show disability is also a significant problem, affecting roughly 10 percent of poor married families

But the biggest lesson from the emergence of the married poor is that parents don't just need jobs, they need good jobs. Without a decent wage, some flexibility, and paid time off to take care of family members, just saying "I do" clearly isn't enough to keep anyone out of poverty.