The new-found Republican interest in addressing income inequality and poverty has seized upon an old argument: more marriages among the poor would mean less poverty. It's an appealing argument for conservatives, blending social values with a bit of anti-government do-it-yourself-ism. But that doesn't mean it would work.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio made the case in his big I'm-running-for-president-and-here-are-my-thoughts-on-poverty speech last week. There's a policy, he said, that "decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent." And, "it isn't a government program. It's called marriage." In The Wall Street Journal, former George W. Bush spokesman-turned-policy-and-data-wonk (apparently) Ari Fleischer repeated the claim.
According to Census Bureau information analyzed by the Beverly LaHaye Institute, among families headed by two married parents in 2012, just 7.5 percent lived in poverty. By contrast, when families are headed by a single mother the poverty level jumps to 33.9 percent.
The "Beverly LaHaye Institute" is apparently a function of Concerned Women for America, a coalition of conservative women which promotes Biblical values and family traditions." Rubio and Fleischer both also pointed to a Heritage Foundation article showing that 82 percent drop. Rubio's claim was "mostly true," Politifact said, because, while other measures of poverty put the spread differently, the gap is the gap.
And this is where everyone should be screaming from the rooftops: "Correlation isn't causation!" If you don't have access to a roof, stand on your desk like you're in Dead Poet's Society and bellow, "Just because poverty is more common among the unmarried doesn't mean it's a function of being unmarried!" Yell that. Yell that to the heavens!
It doesn't take a whole lot to raise questions about a link between marriage and poverty. Pew Research has a new report which looks at the evolution of poverty since the War on Poverty began in 1964. Sure enough, the poor are more likely to be unmarried now than they were then. But guess what: so is everyone else. The author of that Pew report, Drew DeSilver, pointed The Wire to the Census data that serves as its background. Here's what the relationship between the percentage of families in poverty and the percentage of families run by a married couple looks like over time.
As the percentage of families run by a married couple dropped, the percent in poverty … remained pretty consistent. If you just look at the last decade, you see something similar. It compares the percent of people getting married (from the CDC) with the national poverty rate (Census). The rate at which people are getting married has dropped off, but the poverty rate only started to take off in 2009. Can you think of any reasons that poverty might have increased in 2009?
There's no reason to suggest that conservatives aren't being sincere in making the argument that marriage reduces poverty. But it's hard not to notice that, despite being pretty clearly disconnected, it also fulfills the mandate of the Concerned Women For America. Getting married is a key tenet of the organization and of conservatives more broadly, so this data point serves as a good way of both winning a political argument and, they believe, solving the poverty issue. And — even better — the government can't do a whole lot to get involved in marriage. It has tried, ineffectively. Scolding the poor into marriage is far better from a conservative perspective than making smart government investments.
Rubio and Fleischer and the worried women will be excited to discover that there are other things that also correlate strongly to poverty and which should also, therefore, be made into moral crusades. Why stop at marriage when, according to the Census (see page 6), poverty is also strongly correlated with being from the South. (Move everyone in Mississippi to Michigan!) It's correlated to renting your home instead of owning it. (Give everyone a house!) It's correlated to having a disability. (Choose not to be disabled!) And it's correlated to younger people. (Age faster!)
None of these things is helpful advice, of course. And none is commonly used as the basis of an anti-poverty program — despite there at times being a stronger correlation than between marital status and the condition — because they are either impossible or not supportive of a certain moral viewpoint.
There are lots of ways to alleviate poverty from the top down. Most involve government investment. One involves moralistic pearl-clutching. Guess which one conservatives prefer.