While doing research for a forthcoming post on economic insecurity, I was struck by comments made last week by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Focusing on the lack of equal opportunity in the U.S., Rubio zeroed in on marriage.
Social factors also play a major role in denying equal opportunity. The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.
Fifty years ago, today, when the War on Poverty was launched, 93% of children born in the United States were born to married parents. By 2010 that number had plummeted to 60%. It should not surprise us that 71% of poor families with children are not headed by a married couple. The decline of marriage and the increase in the percentage of children born out of wedlock is driven by a complex set of cultural and societal factors.
What piqued my interest most was what Rubio didn’t say. The conservative senator didn’t bother to define marriage, as so many conservatives are wont to do. Of course, “one man and one woman” was the subtext of those comments. But with the so-called Defense of Marriage Act invalidated and marriage equality legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia and “on hold” at the state level in Utah, marriage has a broader, more inclusive definition. Thus, Rubio’s lament about “the decline of marriage” is short-sighted.
In this post-DOMA world, Rubio’s comments take on greater significance because legally married same-sex couples are now recognized under federal law. As we are seeing in Utah, state laws are a different matter. Thirty-three states have constitutional bans or statutes outlawing same-sex marriage. Many of them refuse to recognize the marriage certificate for same-sex couples from the states where it is legal.
The impact of the inability to marry on same-sex families, specifically the income inequality they endure, was detailed in “All Children Matter,” an October 2011 report from the Center for American Progress, the Family Equality Council and the Movement Advancement Project.
The list states with the highest percentage of same-sex couples raising children (one in four families or more) is an eyebrow raiser. Mississippi ranked No. 1. All of the states have a statute or a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Overall, same-sex couples raising children are poorer than married heterosexual couples. According to the study, 21 percent of same-sex male and 20 percent of same-sex female couples raising children live in poverty compared to nine percent for straight married couples. Also, African American and Latino same-sex couples are more likely than their white straight counterparts to be raising children.
So, if the gentleman from Florida really wants to do something about poverty and strengthen the institution of marriage, he’d be smart to support marriage equality. Allowing those hard-pressed families to avail themselves of all of the benefits (and responsibilities) that accrue to marriage would be an enormous help.
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