Marriage and Poverty

Marriage appears to reduce adult and child poverty. Children in non-intact families face a higher risk of poverty through childhood, and the negative economic consequences of divorce tend to be greater for women and children than men. Marriage could lift a substantial portion of poor, even unemployed, unmarried mothers out of poverty.

  • Children in non-intact families face a higher risk of poverty throughout childhood. By age six, 68 percent of children in non-married households had experienced at least one year of poverty, compared to 12 percent of children in married households. By age 12, 78 percent of children in non-married households had experienced at least one year of poverty compared to 18 percent of children in married households; and by age 17, 81 percent of children in non-married households had experienced at least one year of poverty compared to 22 percent of children in married households. The study found that “[c]hildren in nonmarried households who are one year old have exceeded the risk of poverty that children in married households experience during their entire 17 years of childhood.”1
  • Children in households headed by adults with less than a high school education tend to experience higher rates of poverty. By age six, 49 percent of children who lived in households headed by an adult with less than 12 years of education were likely to have experienced poverty compared with 14 percent of children who lived in households headed by an adult with 12 or more years of education; by age 12, 58 percent compared with 20 percent, respectively; and by age 17, 63 percent compared with 23 percent, respectively. Similarly, by age six, 22 percent of children in households headed by an adult with less than 12 years of education were likely to have experienced dire poverty (living at or below 50 percent of the official poverty line) compared with six percent of their peers who lived in households headed by an adult with at least 12 years of education; by age 12, 32 percent compared with nine percent, respectively; by age 17, 37 percent compared with 12 percent, respectively.2
  • Among children whose parents divorce, those with mothers who remarry are least likely to be poor. There was a 66 percent reduction in poverty among children whose divorced single mothers remarried and a 40 percent reduction in poverty among children whose mothers cohabited following a divorce. The poverty rate of children whose divorced mothers remarried was 9.4 percent, while the poverty rate of children whose divorced mothers cohabited was 28.8 percent. The poverty rate of children whose divorced mothers remained single was 42.4 percent.3
  • Married women are less likely to experience poverty. Compared to never-married peers, women who had ever been married were substantially less likely to be poor—regardless of race, family background, non-marital births, or education. Ever-married women have a poverty rate that was roughly one-third lower than the poverty rate of never-married women. Currently married women had an even lower probability of living in poverty—about two-thirds lower than other women.4
  • Early sexual activity is linked to higher levels of child and maternal poverty. Twenty-seven percent of mothers who began sexual activity at age 13 or 14 were living in poverty at the time of the survey. By contrast, 11.7 percent of mothers who began sexual activity at age 21 or 22 were poor at the time of the survey.5
  • Unmarried first-time mothers face a greater risk of poverty and welfare dependence. Women who had their first birth outside marriage were more likely to live below the poverty line (30.1 percent vs. 8.4 percent); more likely to be living below 180 percent of the poverty line (52.3 percent vs. 20 percent); and more likely to be receiving food stamps at the time of the survey (35.7 percent vs. 7.8 percent) than women who had their first birth within marriage. The relationships between out-of-wedlock first birth and the three measures of poverty were all statistically significant and held for all racial groups; although, the percentages varied for the different racial groups.6
  • Men who become fathers outside of marriage are more likely to be poor. These men were 70 percent to 90 percent more likely to be poor compared to men who never had children before marriage. Their risk of poverty varied with the age at which they became fathers.7
  • Marriage reduces the risk of poverty for both employed and unemployed single mothers. The likelihood of single, unemployed mothers being in poverty dropped from 100 percent to 35 percent if they marry the father of their children: Marriage more than doubled the family income of these mothers and their children. Among previously single mothers who were employed part-time for a total of 1,000 hours a year, marriage decreased the poverty rate from 55 percent to 17 percent. Marriage increased the income in such households by 75 percent and would raise 83 percent of such households above the poverty level and 46 percent above 150 percent of the poverty level. Among mothers who were employed full-time, marriage would boost the incomes of nearly two-thirds of such households to 150 percent of the poverty level. In sum, marriage would increase the median family income of mothers in this study by between $10,200 and $11,400 per year and would reduce the probability that mothers would live in poverty by at least two-thirds.8
  • Mothers are more likely than fathers to fall into poverty following a divorce. Among households that had been above poverty prior to a marital separation, mothers were much more likely than fathers to fall into poverty during the first year following separation: while 19 percent of mothers became impoverished, only 3 percent of the husbands became poor after separating.9
  • When divorce occurs among families living in poverty, mothers are less likely than fathers to rise out of poverty. Among households whose incomes fell below the official poverty line, fathers were significantly more likely to rise out of poverty than mothers during the first year following marital separation. While only one-quarter of the fathers who had been in poverty remained so after separation, three-quarters of the mothers remained in poverty.10

Footnotes

  1. Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl, “The Economic Risk of Childhood in America: Estimating the Probability of Poverty Across the Formative Years,” Journal of Marriage and Family 61, No. 4 (November 1999): 1058-1067.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Donna Ruane Morrison and Amy Ritualo, “Routes to Children’s Economic Recovery After Divorce: Are Cohabitation and Remarriage Equivalent?” American Sociological Review 65 (August 2000): 560-580.
  4. Daniel T. Lichter, Deborah Roempke, and Brian J. Brown, “Is Marriage a Panacea? Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Unwed Mothers,” Social Problems 50 (2003): 60-86.
  5. Robert E. Rector et al., “The Harmful Effects of Early Sexual Activity and Multiple Sexual Partners Among Women: A Book of Charts,” The Heritage Foundation WebMemo, No. 303 (June 26, 2003).
  6. Lichter, “Is Marriage a Panacea?”: 60-86.
  7. Steven L. Nock, “The Consequences of Premarital Fatherhood,” American Sociological Review 63, (April 1998): 250-263.
  8. Robert E. Rector, “Increasing Marriage Will Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty,” The Heritage Foundation, Center for Data Analysis Report, No. 03-06 (May 20, 2003).
  9. Suzanne M. Bianchi, Lekha Subaiya, and Joan R. Kahn, “The Gender Gap in the Economic Well-Being of Nonresident Fathers and Custodial Mothers,” Demography 36, No. 2 (May 1999): 195-203.
  10. Ibid.