Poverty’s elephant in the room

One core advantage of religious and other private charity over government welfare is that it is more likely to address the elephant in the room in discussions of poverty: marriage and family structure.

The Department of Workforce Services report on intergenerational poverty, released Sept. 28, notes correlations between intergenerational poverty and family structure:

  • “One in every 20 intergenerational teen girls (ages 13 to 17) was pregnant during SFY 12.”
  • “Most intergenerational adults are unmarried females with children.”

This is consistent with a body of empirical data that establishes three points.

First, fragile family structure, especially the failure of marriage at the outset of childbearing or divorce afterwards, is associated with increased poverty risk.

The report Why Marriage Matters notes:

  • “Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers, and cohabitation is less likely to alleviate poverty than is marriage.”
  • “Marriage reduces poverty and material hardship for disadvantaged women and their children.”
  • “Parental divorce reduces the likelihood that children will graduate from college and achieve high-status jobs.”

Two recent studies in Social Science Research include reports of adult children who grew up in a variety of circumstances. The percentage of children who reported their families received welfare while growing up was 17 percent of those in intact biological families, 72 percent of those who reported their mothers were in lesbian relationships, 70 percent of those who reported their mothers were in lesbian relationships and they had lived for at least some time with the partner in the home, 51 percent of those who reported their fathers had gay relationships, 12 percent of those adopted by strangers, 47 percent of those whose parents divorced after the children were older, 53 percent of those in stepfamilies, and 48 percent of those in single-parent homes.

Second, family instability and poverty seem to be transmittable to future generations.

The same studies reported the percentages of children who were currently on public assistance by family structure: 10 percent of those in intact biological families, 32 percent of those who reported their mothers were in lesbian relationships, 49 percent of those who reported their mothers were in lesbian relationships and they had lived for at least some time with the partner in the home, 14 percent of those who reported their fathers had gay relationships, 27 percent of those adopted by strangers, 31 percent of those whose parents divorced after the children were older, 30 percent of those in stepfamilies, and 30 percent of those in single-parent homes.

Two prominent family researchers found that “offspring with divorced parents have an elevated risk of seeing their own marriages end in divorce” especially if the divorce disrupted a low-conflict marriage. Another study demonstrated that “being born of unmarried parents increases the risk of offspring having a nonmarital first birth.” Another that there was a “positive impact of parental divorce on offspring divorce” and that “children who were born out of wedlock and who did not experience parental divorce or death experience a very high risk of marital disruption.”

Third, religious practice (as opposed to mere identification) seems to help strengthen families.

A Heritage Foundation report demonstrates that: Religious participation encourages marriage, marital stability and happiness; decreases likelihood of divorce; and decreases the likelihood of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth.

Even in more difficult family situations, religious participation helps. A study of 1,134 single mothers found religious participation “was associated with greater involvement with children, reduced parenting stress, and a lower likelihood of engaging in corporal punishment.” The children of mothers who attend church frequently “were less likely to display problem behaviors.”

Unfortunately, there are significant challenges to religious and private charities as they go about their efforts to relieve the needy. Their functions have been displaced in many instances by government programs. They also face increasing regulations (such as the contraception mandate or nondiscrimination requirements) that interfere with their ability to do charitable work while remaining true to their religious character.

So, other items to add to the poverty toolkit are (1) providing room for religious organizations to pursue their charitable missions without interference and (2) dramatically increasing the focus on promoting marriage and family.

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  • rmwarnick

    Um, ever hear of the separation of church and state?

    • Duane

      First, the author did not advocate involvement of any church in government activity. So your comment is a stupid red herring.

      Second, he DID suggest that government “provide room for religious organizations to pursue their charitable missions WITHOUT interference.” That does not mean church runs government welfare, it means government gets the heck out of the way.

      Third, the author of the phrase “separation of church and state” intended that church be protected from government interference (try reading the quote in context) NOT that government would be protected from religion. Indeed, most of the people who signed the Constitution intended religion to influence public life, but they did not want one church to be favored or established as the “state church” like the Church of England.

      Ever hear of actually studying history?

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