Editor’s Note: The following piece originally appeared in City Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.
For today’s progressives, marriage doesn’t matter when it comes to fighting poverty in America. Melissa Boteach and Anusha Ravi of the Center for American Progress, for instance, dismissed a July op-ed by George Will reporting that Millennials who put “marriage before the baby carriage” are much less likely to be poor.
In a column entitled “No, Young People Aren’t Poor Because They’re Not Married,” Boteach and Ravi argue that “[two] poor people getting married does not make anyone less poor,” noting that a majority of low-income families are in “families headed by married or unmarried partners.” Their underlying assumption is that, because marriage is not a poverty panacea for all low-income families (true), it must necessarily play no role in reducing poverty (false). Like other leftist commentators on marriage and poverty, Boteach and Ravi blame poverty among today’s young adults on forces entirely outside of their control: a tough job market and bad public policy.
The problem with the progressive approach to poverty is that it denies the importance of culture and character to household prosperity — especially when it comes to marriage. This isn’t to say that a tough job market and bad public policy are irrelevant to explaining why some Millennials are in poverty, but life choices substantially affect the odds of ending up poor.
Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies and I recently co-authored a report, The Millennial Success Sequence, which demonstrates and quantifies the extent to which early life choices correlate with personal affluence. Though young people take a variety of paths into adulthood — arranging school, work, and family in a dizzying array of combinations — one path stood out as most likely to be linked to financial success for young adults. Brookings scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have identified the “success sequence,” through which young adults who follow three steps — getting at least a high-school degree, then working full time, and then marrying before having any children, in that order — are very unlikely to become poor. In fact, 97 percent of Millennials who have followed the success sequence are not in poverty by the time they reach the ages of 28 to 34.
Sequence-following Millennials are also markedly more likely to flourish financially than their peers taking different paths; 89 percent of 28- to 34-year-olds who have followed the sequence stand at the middle or upper end of the income distribution, compared with just 59 percent of Millennials who missed one or two steps in the sequence. The formula even works for young adults who have faced heavier odds, such as Millennials who grew up poor, or black Millennials; despite questions regarding socioeconomic privilege, our research suggests that the success sequence is associated with better outcomes for everyone. For instance, only 9 percent of black Millennials who have followed the three steps of the sequence, or who are on track with the sequence (which means they have at least a high-school degree and worked full time in their twenties, but have not yet married or had children) are poor, compared with a 37 percent rate of poverty for blacks who have skipped one or two steps. Likewise, only 9 percent of young men and women from lower-income families who follow the sequence are poor in their late twenties and early thirties; by comparison, 31 percent of their peers from low-income families who missed one or two steps are now poor.
Millennials who have a baby outside of marriage — even in a cohabiting union — are likelier to end up as single parents or paying child support, both of which increase the odds of poverty.
Even more significantly, it appears that marriage in itself reduces Millennials’ chances of being poor. Why? Young men and (especially) women who put “marriage before the baby carriage” get access to the financial benefits of a partnership — income pooling, economies of scale, support from kinship networks — with fewer of the risks of an unmarried partnership, including breakups. By contrast, Millennials who have a baby outside of marriage — even in a cohabiting union — are likelier to end up as single parents or paying child support, both of which increase the odds of poverty. One study found that cohabiting parents were three times more likely to break up than were married parents by the time their first child turned five — 39 percent of cohabiting parents broke up, versus 13 percent of married parents in the first five years of their child’s life. The stability associated with marriage, then, tends to give Millennials and their children much more financial security.
Until the Left faces up to these hard truths, its fight to end poverty in America is unserious. If young adults make bad choices about education, work, and family, all the jobs and policies in the world will not give them an equal shot at realizing the American Dream as their peers who follow the sequence to success.
— W. Bradford Wilcox is a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.