For Richer or Poorer? Marriage as an Anti-Poverty Strategy in the United States

Low Fertility, Family and Public Policies
By Wendy Sigle-Rushton, Sara McLanahan


Many conservative politicians in the United States are suggesting that although, as a result of sweeping reforms, states have been successful at moving welfare mothers into paid employment, they have paid too little attention to an integral anti-poverty strategy—encouraging the formation of two-parent families. Comparing the incomes of single mother families to two-parent families, they argue that marriage would reduce poverty. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, we show that comparing married and single parent families results in substantial overstatement of the economic gains to marriage. We demonstrate that unmarried mothers and their partners are vastly different from married parents when it comes to age, education, health status and behaviour, employment, and wage rates. These differences translate into important differences in earnings capacities, which, in turn, translate into differences in poverty. Even assuming the same family structure and labour supply, our estimates suggest that much of the difference in poverty outcomes by family structure can be attributed to factors other than marital status. Our results also suggest that full employment is essential to lifting poor families—married or otherwise—out of poverty.

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