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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Decreasing Nonmarital Births and Strengthening Marriage to Reduce Poverty
Paul R. Amato Rebecca A. Maynard


One key strategy for U.S. policymakers seeking to reduce childhood poverty would be to increase the share of children who grow up with continuously married parents. Married couples with children enjoy, on average, a higher standard of living and greater economic security than do single-parent families with children. In 2003 the median annual income of families with children was almost three times that of single-parent households—$67,670 compared with $24,408.1 Correspondingly, the child poverty rate was more than four times higher in single-parent households than in married-couple households—34 percent compared with 8 percent. Moreover, the economic advantages of married couples are apparent across virtually all racial and ethnic groups. But over the past half-century those economic advantages have been denied to a growing share of America’s children.

In 2004, nearly 36 percent of U.S. children were born to unmarried mothers. Even when children are born to married couples, many will spend part of their childhood living with a single parent because of parental divorce.2 Between 1960 and 2005, increases in nonmarital births, low marriage rates for women who have children out of wedlock, and rising divorce rates pushed the share of children living with a single parent (mostly the mother) from 8 percent to 28 percent.3 And these sobering figures underestimate the share of children who will ever live with a single parent, because they refer to a single year. Overall, demographers project that only half of all children in the United States will grow up with two continuously married parents.4 The clear correlation between family structure and economic resources has led researchers to conclude that a major cause of the rise in child poverty in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century is the decline in married-couple households. 5 Effective public policies to boost the share of children living in two-parent families could thus help to reduce child poverty.