Commentary: Marriage is no cure for poverty

The Kansas City StarDecember 1, 2012 


Mary Sanchez is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.

MBR — Kansas City Star/MCT

Title this “Political magical thinking of the holiday season, Part II.”

Thanksgiving’s column dealt with illogic around unwed mothers and poverty.

“Marry! If these single moms would only marry,” is too often the rallying cry.

No, it’s not that simple.

To reiterate the point: Poverty is caused by economic instability, not by a lack of marriage. Improving people’s economic status increases the likelihood they will marry, but not necessarily the other way around.

Don’t waste government funds on marriage initiatives expecting to affect poverty. The two simply are not as connected as people wish to believe.

“Bravo,” replied a range of college professors and social policy experts. But Sister Berta Sailer stretched the conversation to the next pertinent point.

“Marrying is the worst economic choice these women can make,” she said.

In 43 years of working with single mothers, she’s seen a lot of ill-considered policy impediments to those who are trying to edge their way out of poverty.

First, understand the lives of the single mothers Sailer sees at Operation Breakthrough.

Most of the women earn barely above minimum wage, often in fast food or hotels. They scrape by on their wages, food stamps, and assistance for housing and childcare.

The men they are most likely to meet work similar low-paying jobs, often with no health benefits. And given rates of addiction, prison records and the unemployable status of many men, a real problem is too few marriage-ready men in their world.

But let’s say they find a good man. They fall in love and marry.

Two fast food incomes do not raise the household budget enough to cover housing, childcare, healthcare and food costs. But it can raise enough to push the household over income limits, causing the woman to lose a wide range of government assistance to help meet such needs.

Does that mean she is “welfare dependent”? Yes. But this is one way the dependence can continue by design.

Sailer knows women who decline 10-cent promotions and overtime. The increases will bump the mothers over income limits. Ten cents vs. childcare while they work.

Sailer says policy should focus more on education, training for jobs that draw a higher wage and more of a “slope” as opposed to a “cliff” to decrease dependence as people become more educated, employable — and likely marriage-ready.

So drop the coin in the kettle, volunteer for the turkey drive, hand the Harvester’s check-out hunger coupon to the grocery clerk.

The rest of the year stop supporting politicians who pass legislation ensuring that such needs never change.

Nip magical thinking, year round.

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