Can Marriage End Poverty?

Wedding rings

Why traditional values still matter today.

The divorce rate in America is at 30%. That statistic, down from 50% a few years ago, has many decrying the end of traditional marriage and values. Yet, the flip side of that statistic is that two-thirds of marriages are working. Two-thirds of married people are trying to stick it out. They are wading their way through a host of marital problems and still find themselves clinging to one another. So, whether you are conservative or liberal traditional values and marriage are relevant. But that's not the only reason traditional marriage is relevant to today's culture. 

Here's why.

Poverty. But wait, what does poverty have to do with traditional values? Isn't poverty a problem with our economic system rather than our culture?

Surprisingly, the answer is no. A study by the center-left Brookings Institution, conducted by two former Clinton Administration officials, found that over two-thirds of poverty in this country could be eliminated if everyone did four things: Graduated high school, worked full-time, married and had no more than two children. By comparison, the same study examined what would happen if we doubled welfare payments—and the study found that even that did not appreciably reduce the poverty rate.

The conclusion of the Brookings study made it clear: the majority of poverty in this country wasn't caused by economics, but by personal choice. If we really want to fight poverty and make people's lives better, we have to attack it by helping people make better personal choices.

That's why traditional values are more important than ever. The problem we face today: poverty, an education system that fails our children, crime and even the national debt all have cultural factors behind them. If we want to fix these problem we can't just look at economics or politics: we have to look at our culture.

But that's the problem: changing our political and economic systems is hard. Changing our entire culture is even harder. There's no Department of Culture and Values that can order people to stop having children outside of wedlock. We can't start an International Responsibility Fund to get people to stop taking drugs and dropping out of school. Government can't change culture, and when they try bad things tend to happen. At best we get ineffective attempts like Nancy Reagan telling everyone to "just say no" to drugs. At worst, we get a government that thinks that it has the right to intrude into the private sphere and legislate every facet of our lives—a Big Brother, even if a well-intentioned one. If we're going to fix our culture, looking to politics isn't going to work.

The choices we make individually, especially as parents, have a profound effect on whether we are rich or poor, more so than anything that Washington D.C. does. The Brookings Institution study found that 81% of non-poor families were traditional two-parent families. Only 40 percent of poor families were two-parent families. A similar study conducted by the Heritage Foundation found that the child poverty rate for married couples was 8.2 percent—for single-parent families it was four times higher, 35.2 percent. That same study found that restoring marriage rates to their 1960 levels would have lifted 3 million children out of poverty. One personal decision—the decision to marry or to have children out of wedlock -- has profound consequences for millions of American families.

We can't fight poverty without changing the culture that feeds our growing poverty rate. That's why traditional values matter. They're not about enforcing some ancient and outdated cultural view on everyone, they are about making sure that we have a society that leaves a better world for the next generation. If our society valued marriage more highly, we would have fewer children born into poverty. We would have less crime and less violence on our streets. Our schools, communities, and nation would all be stronger.

That's why traditional values are relevant, and why changing our culture is so important to the future.