• Dawson Vosburg

Why Poverty Policy Isn't About Marriage

Families and marriage are important to Christians. To be married is to give oneself in sacrificial love to one’s spouse, as Christ died for the church. It is to model for the world what love looks like, to be a fountain of charity overflowing into the rest of the world, to raise children in the faith, and to invite those who are called into lives of singleness into the family of God. Indeed, family and marriage are not all-encompassing—there is a long trend of their idolization among evangelicals. But nevertheless, the antidote to this idolization is not to say that family and marriage are unimportant.

Thus, it is understandable why evangelicals are concerned with the fall of marriage rates since the middle of the 20th century. It is one of the most significant social facts of our time, and it must be considered carefully and weightily. What must not be done, however, is to make the mistake of trying to change the trends in family life by moving the levers of poverty policy. This is a well-worn path that Christians walk down for reasons that make sense, but which ultimately leads to failure both to relieve poverty and to encourage good families.

Many folks believe that since poverty rates are higher for single-parent families than for two-parent families, poverty must be caused by the declining rates of marriage and growing rates of non-marital childbearing. Thus, in order to curtail poverty, one must address the “root cause”: people failing to marry and have children in that order. The policies that have resulted have been somewhat incoherent. Some have focused on trying to encourage marriage directly, and others have been aimed at pushing single parents into the labor market to ensure none of the idle poor were receiving handouts, thus making marriage more attractive since balancing work and childcare is much easier with two adults in the home. But the attempts of both of this kind of policy—which are now implemented throughout the welfare state, especially since the mid-90s welfare reform signed into law by Bill Clinton—have been an abject failure. Marriage rates have not bounced back as a result, and there’s no evidence that these attempts at incentivizing marriage and work have been a boon for the poor.

Why is this? The answer, in short, is that the inputs for how much marriage happens in a society are many and diffuse and not easily controlled at the national level, while there is one input for poverty: income.

This is completely opposite from the typical understanding implicit in many Christians’ understandings of poverty policy. Many Christians believe that poverty is a cloudy, unclear problem but ultimately rooted in family life, a myriad of individual choices, and culture—a complex trap difficult to escape. But marriage rates can be altered by policy: pull the right incentive levers, and people will be pushed back into marriage. But this is 180 degrees backwards. We can’t straightforwardly reverse the trend of marriage decline by federal law: changes in culture, the contingencies of post-industrialization, a change in people’s beliefs and desires, and lots of other factors are at play in explaining the decline in marriage. We do know how to address American poverty. We have the strongest possible evidence that the cause of poverty is non-workers, such as children and the elderly, and that the only reliable way to eliminate poverty among those groups is to ensure they receive incomes via the welfare state.

Ultimately, the social engineering and bureaucracy involved in trying to press people into marriage is far more invasive and violating than a well-designed, universal welfare state. And reducing poverty in this way might even have positive knock-on effects for families: for instance, many Americans report being unable to have as many children as they would like because of financial constraints. Policies like the recent child allowance proposals could make growing families and caring for them well much more feasible for everyone.

But finally, it’s important to think about the nature of marriage and family. If we believe that marriage is a good in itself, then it should not require the threat of poverty to hold together. God’s desire for family life does not require us to withhold the means to live a flourishing life unless people obey it. The creation of good families is a practice encouraged in community, not enforced by material lack. Even if it worked, poverty policy simply is not the right means by which to achieve the end of flourishing marriage and family life.