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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Decreasing Nonmarital Births and Strengthening Marriage to Reduce Poverty
Paul R. Amato Rebecca A. Maynard

Summary

Since the 1970s, the share of U.S. children growing up in single-parent families has doubled, a trend that has disproportionately affected disadvantaged families. Paul Amato and Rebecca Maynard argue that reversing that trend would reduce poverty in the short term and, perhaps more important, improve children’s growth and development over the long term, thus reducing the likelihood that they would be poor when they grew up. The authors propose school and community programs to help prevent nonmarital births. They also propose to lower divorce rates by offering more educational programs to couples before and during marriage.

Amato and Maynard recommend that all school systems offer health and sex education whose primary message is that parenthood is highly problematic for unmarried youth. They also recommend educating young people about methods to prevent unintended pregnancies. Ideally, the federal government would provide tested curriculum models that emphasize both abstinence and use of contraception. All youth should understand that unintended pregnancies are preventable and have enormous costs for the mother, the father, the child, and society.

Strengthening marriage, argue the authors, is also potentially an effective strategy for fighting poverty. Researchers consistently find that premarital education improves marital quality and lowers the risk of divorce. About 40 percent of couples about to marry now participate in premarital education. Amato and Maynard recommend doubling that figure to 80 percent and making similar programs available for married couples. Increasing the number of couples receiving services could mean roughly 72,000 fewer divorces each year, or around 65,000 fewer children entering a single-parent family every year because of marital dissolution. After seven or eight years, half a million fewer children would have entered single-parent families through divorce. Efforts to decrease the share of children in single-parent households, say the authors, would almost certainly be cost effective in the long run and could reduce child poverty by 20 to 29 percent.