First it was Senator Marco Rubio: marriage is “the greatest tool” to lift people out of poverty. Then it was Ari Fleischer: the best way to fight income inequality is by “helping the poor realize that the most important decision they can make is to stay in school, get married and have children—in that order.” And then on Sunday it was Ross Douthat: “one of the biggest boosts to opportunity comes from having married parents.”
Conservatives are lately doing some thinking about poverty and income inequality, but the answer they seem to keep landing on is marriage. True, being married certainly is associated with financial benefits. The poverty rate is about five times higher for single parents than for married couples, which can have a significant impact on children’s well-being and future prospects. But to turn that from a statistic to a solution, the next leap would be to push for the government to push people into marriages. Unfortunately for conservatives, the government is terrible at getting people together.
In seeking to push people toward marital bliss, the government uses a carrot and a stick: incentivizing some couples with spending on pro-marriage counseling programs while attempting to penalize others who don’t marry by denying them tax benefits. Neither of these attempts to rig the marriage market work.
Take marriage promotion. In 2002, the federal government poured tens of millions of dollars into a project called Building Strong Families, which offered more than 5,000 unwed couples across the country group sessions on relationship skills and support services to boost marriage rates. It cost an average of $11,000 per couple. Yet three years later, an independent review of its efficacy found that it was a flop. It had no effect on whether the couples got married or even whether they stayed romantically involved. In fact, the couples who took part in the program were slightly less likely to stay together or live together than those in a control group.
Another review found slightly more optimistic but not promising outcomes. Researchers analyzed the relationship between state spending on Healthy Marriage Initiatives—relationship education programs—and how many married adults lived in the state. The positive association they found all but disappeared when one outlier, Washington, DC, was taken out of the results. In short: all this spending has done little to boost marriage.
But even if these programs were effective at pushing couples together, they might not help single mothers. Low-income single mothers’s relationships are much more likely to be highly unstable and low-quality. And there is often little benefit from getting married: in a recent study, Ohio State University Associate Professor of sociology Kristi Williams analyzed more than thirty years of data and found “no physical or psychological advantages for the majority of adolescents born to a single mother whose mothers later married.”