Panelists at the Values and Capitalism Fall Summit gathered recently to discuss the impact of the family on poverty.
According to Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the retreat from marriage has increased child poverty and inequality, hitting low-income families the hardest.
While educated families are more likely to enjoy stable homes and employment, those without high school degrees see an increase in single parent homes, teen pregnancy, and incarceration.
They are also less likely to get married, which further limits their economic opportunity.
The graph below illustrates the retreat from marriage across time for three different education cohorts. The least educated (high school drop outs) see a larger drop in marriage from the 1970s to the 2000s, followed by the moderately educated (high school degree or some college), and the highly educated (college degree).
Declining marriage rates drive a deeper wedge in the socioeconomic class divide.
Studies show that men who marry work harder and make more money.
Family structure is also a strong predictor of a child’s chance of moving up the income ladder.
Unfortunately, less educated men are becoming increasingly disengaged from institutions of work, religion, and marriage.
Panelist Melissa Boteach of the Center for American Progress named three important family factors that we must consider when discussing policy solutions, what she called the three S’s: structure, strength, and stability.
- Family structure: the composition of a family unit at a point of time.
- Family strength: the quality of parents’ and other primary caregivers’ relationships with each other and their children.
- Family stability: extent of transitions between structures and changes in strength factors over time.
Boteach pointed out it is not necessarily a matter of marriage or divorce. The issue is more complex.
For example, a stable single parent home may provide a better environment for a child’s future than a family with many marriages and divorces.
Panelist Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation emphasized the failed policy of the War on Poverty as well as the church’s unique role in addressing these issues.
According to Marshall, the poverty rate today is nearly as high as it was in the 1960s. For that reason, she sees the War on Poverty as a 20 trillion dollar failure.
The issues are much deeper than something money and government programs can solve. Instead, she argues poverty relief efforts should embrace shalom and the wholeness of the individual.
Marshall believes there is a lack of creativity in the Christian community in this space, which reflects a lack of confidence in God’s redemptive work. She encouraged the church to get involved in the messiness of peoples’ lives and to do the hard work of building deep relationships with low-income families in order to better understand their needs.
How can the church help?
Wilcox suggested marriage mentoring. Those who grow up without a healthy marriage model need mentor couples to walk alongside them and offer guidance through difficult times.
Strong families prove to be good antipoverty policy, as the panelists concluded, but not without the help of the church.