President Obama likes to talk about inequality. Republican reformers like to talk about upward mobility and poverty. Often lacking is an honest discussion and agenda centered on a key driver of poverty. Robert Doar, the former commissioner for New York City’s Human Resources Administration and now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, testified before a Senate committee recently that we should:

• Create stronger work requirements for public assistance programs;

• Better target work supports, and sometimes make them more generous, to make low wages stretch further;

• Mitigate marriage penalties embedded in means-tested welfare programs and send honest public messages about the significant challenges of raising children in single-parent families.

• Create targeted programs for young men and young parents in poor communities; and

• Establish a pro job-growth and labor mobility policy, specifically relocation assistance for the unemployed.

As for the third, politicians feel squeamish about tackling the issue head on, which unfortunately leaves out a critical part of the inequality/mobility/poverty equation. Doar notes, “The consensus view of academic research, and of common sense, is that children raised in married, two-parent families are more likely to be successful than those raised by single parents. Yet many public assistance programs are structured in ways that provide greater financial benefits to single parent families than married families. And unfortunately most of our leading institutions and leaders shy away from reiterating that children are less likely to grow up in poverty if they are born into married two-parent families. We need to mitigate marriage penalties in public assistance programs and we need to be honest about the consequences for children of single parenthood.”

It’s no mystery why liberals decline to address the marriage/childbirth issue head on. Politicians fear being seen as judgmental and see the marriage issue as an excuse for conservatives to cut assistance for the poor. The idea that a major social ill can’t be solved simply by dumping money into government programs threatens their cherished views of the welfare state. But, of course, as Doar pointed out, the effort to promote marriage — or, more specifically, to promote childrearing within marriage — need not detract from other policy measures. Ignoring it, however, means many of the other components of the anti-poverty agenda may fall flat.  Mona Charen recently wrote:

The collapse of marriage among the uneducated and partially educated has unquestionably been a social and economic disaster. The data are overwhelming that children raised by married parents are happier and healthier, do better in school, and are more likely to attend and finish college than their peers from single-parent homes. This is true without regard to race or ethnicity. In fact, being raised by a single mother is a better predictor of poverty than race or ancestry.

Those concerned about income inequality, poverty, and social health . . . must be concerned about rebuilding the marriage norm. I cited the successful effort to reduce teen pregnancy (it’s dropped 50 percent in recent years). A similar campaign to stress the importance of stable families could yield huge benefits for the most vulnerable populations in our society.

As frustrating as it may be for politicians and public-policy types, much of the work here has to be done by non-political figures. Until religious and civic leaders take up the issue of the social pathologies involved with young, single parenthood, it is hard to image a sea change in behavior. It’s no secret that many religious leaders would rather talk about environmentalism or abortion than out-of-wedlock childbirth.

In the political realm, there are a few standouts. When first elected as Indiana governor, former GOP congressman Mike Pence signed a controversial executive order to require “all state agencies that impact families and children to draft a family impact statement in order to ensure that no rule or regulation in the state of Indiana would be a detriment to healthy families in our state.” In a speech in December, he explained, “We’ve initiated a multi-agency effort to bring together a diverse group of Hoosiers and national leaders to have a conversation about the research and best practices in promoting childbearing in intact homes in the next year.” He continued:

The Brookings [Institution] found that if any person in our society does these three things in this order, they have an almost infinitesimal chance of being poor. It’s called the Success Equation. Those three things are: finish high school, get a job and wait until you are married to have children. The percentage of people who do those things and find themselves in persistent poverty is almost nonexistent. I think it’s time to be honest about these numbers and share with our kids the importance of these three things: the importance of getting a high school diploma, the importance of being ready for work and the importance of waiting to have children until you’re married. Being honest with our kids about these facts is critical.

President Obama recently gave a speech on income inequality. The truth of the matter is there is an extraordinary disparity in incomes between two-parent families and non-two parent families. As the president noted, the number of people who are born in the top 1 percent of income have a small chance of staying in that income level, and for people that are born in the lower 20 percent the chance is 1 in 20.

Family, I would submit to you, is a key indicator of success. So, we are looking for ways that we can encourage more young people to get married, to stay married and to wait to have children until after they have gotten married. In Indiana, this is particularly important. Back in the 1960s, an average of 5.4 percent of children in our state were born to unmarried parents, a rate that had been unchanged going back decades. It then rose to 20 percent in the 1980s and is almost 40 percent today. We have the 13th-highest unmarried childbearing rate in the nation. The large majority of unmarried childbirths occur to women in their 20s and in their teens.

In addition to talking about the subject and making sure state policies don’t create the wrong incentives, Pence is focusing on child mortality rates, quality prekindergarten for disadvantaged youth, career and vocational training, drop-out rates, a plan to “index the per child dependency exemption in the state of Indiana to strengthen and protect the fiscal foundation under our families for years to come” and an initiative to expand and improve adoption procedures.

If conservatives, and especially social conservatives who have devoted their lives to studying and promoting the health of families, want to make a difference on this issue and dispel the image that they are heartless (or only obsessed with preventing gay marriage) there is no better issue to tackle than this. They should not buy into the liberal criticism that this is an either/or proposition. This is not a penny-pinching endeavor. The economics (decrease in welfare rolls, increase in work and tax revenues) will take care of themselves, but not immediately. And, if done right, it probably will require ample expenditures for the all-inclusive outreach and casework needed to guide millions of young people into making better life decisions. The goal here is not saving money but improving lives.