If we truly care about ending poverty, why aren't we creating more incentives for people to get married — or join in a civil union — and stay that way?
Children from families where there are two responsible parents are far less likely to grow up poor. I'm not blaming anyone. This is what the numbers say.
We already spend more than $600 billion on housing, health care, education and other services for the poor. It's possible we are not doing enough to encourage and motivate people to change.
If you think I'm pitching some homespun, family-values solution, you're missing a larger point.
A job and stable home are the two fastest routes out of poverty. We need to reward people who follow this path. This isn't cheap, but neither is child poverty, which saps an estimated $500 billion a year from our nation.
I was fascinated to listen in last Friday at the state Capitol, where Democrats, Republicans and national experts met to talk about reducing child poverty. Marriage was a significant part of the discussion.
"One of the driving forces behind high child poverty rates is the decline of marriage through non-marital births, divorce and declining rates of marriage," said J. Lawrence Aber, a New York University professor, reading from a new report from the legislature's Child Poverty and Prevention Council.
This is blue-state Connecticut, not the delusional Bush White House. But this is hardly a surprise because it doesn't get much worse than Hartford, which has one of the nation's highest child poverty rates. Statewide, one in 10 Connecticut children lives in poverty.
"Children in married couple families experience about one-fifth the poverty rate experienced by children in female headed families," the report concludes. "Poverty would fall and child development would be augmented if a larger share of Connecticut children were in … married couple families."
The problem is how to promote marriage, which is a private decision. It's well-known that initiatives to teach abstinence education have failed in the war against teen pregnancy. Efforts to teach poor people about marriage would certainly meet a similar fate.
The answer, according to Ron Haskins, a prominent Republican researcher at the Brookings Institution and an architect of the 1990s welfare reform initiative, is to create incentives for responsible behavior. It's a model that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also touting.
"You have to reward individual responsibility," Haskins told the meeting at the Capitol. "If we are going to fight poverty, it has to be through work and marriage."
Brookings researchers estimate that if the marriage rate were merely at the level of 1970, poverty would decrease by 27 percent. Looked at another way, between 1970 and 2002, the percentage of children living in single-parent families more than doubled.
Haskins and members of the poverty council point to a proven incentive that could nurture families — the earned income tax credit — that Connecticut fails to take full advantage of, despite our impoverished cities.
Under the program, the more a low-income person earns, the greater the tax break.
If the credits were expanded to target more men with children, as Mayor Bloomberg would like to do, it could bring more men back into the workforce, while also strengthening families.
Significantly, Gov. Rell has opposed expanding the earned income tax credit. Shortsighted thinking like this will only preserve Hartford's abysmal poverty.
Three years ago, the legislature set a goal of reducing child poverty by 50 percent by 2014. We'd better start moving — by rewarding people who improve their lives — or we'll never approach this goal.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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