Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, February 6, 2008: Marriage could be tool against child poverty

Posted on

Patrick McIlheran

News comes that a third of school-age children in Milwaukee live in poverty. The usual to-do lists follow: Make more jobs, discourage dropouts. “I’m begging you to stay in school,” Mayor Tom Barrett says he tells children. It’s an admirable message, and it’s good to work on getting their mommies jobs.

How about a husband, too?

I’m not suggesting a city Department of Hookups. But if society as a whole is daunted by the way crime and unemployment and truancy and poverty all seem to cause each other, one place to start might be to encourage the thing that’s connected with less of each – marriage.

There is a correlation. Milwaukee’s 33% rate of poverty in schoolchildren puts it in the 10 worst among the nations’ biggest school systems. Among this Terrible 10, all have at least a third of their children growing up in a single-parent home, according to census figures. Except for three districts with many immigrants (who are often poor for other reasons), none saw even half its children living with married parents. In Milwaukee, 58% of children live in single-parent homes.

This sets Milwaukee apart from other big districts in Wisconsin. Racine ranks next, with 40% of its children in single-parent homes. Its child-poverty rate, at 15%, is tied for second-worst. Among the state’s biggest “unified” districts, the ones with the least child poverty are Waukesha and Appleton. They also have the fewest children in single-parent homes. Map all 10, and the correlation is nearly perfect.

“There are a lot of things that correlate with marriage,” says Diann Dawson, a former social worker who now heads the federal African American Healthy Marriage Initiative. Chief among them is whether a family is poor.

Some caveats: Not all poor children or single-parent families are African-American, though in Milwaukee, as nationwide, a disproportionate number are, which is why Dawson’s office exists. This wasn’t always so, she notes: Around the beginning of the 20th century, African-Americans were more likely to be married than other people, she says. The following decades saw, despite vicious racism, steady improvement in African-American circumstances. You can argue about whether marriage precedes or simply accompanies reduced poverty, she says, but there’s no reason to think that marriage is either irrelevant or impossible for the poor.

We have to make the case for people to reconsider marriage, she says: “There’s too much out there saying why you shouldn’t marry.” Given how marriage seems to protect everyone involved, society needs to crow its advantages, over and over.

It’s starting to. Terence Ray, who heads the city-run Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, also helps teach marriage skills. A Milwaukee nonprofit, the Center for Self-Sufficiency, is planning a day of how-to workshops at the Northside YMCA to mark Black Marriage Day in March. It’s one of some 250 such celebrations nationwide. “The public conversation has changed,” says Dawson.

Not that marriage is a panacea. There are poor married families. In those 10 worst-off big school districts nationwide, about 11% of married families with children are poor, according to figures from the well-regarded Annie E. Casey Foundation. But in those cities, about 45% of single-parent households are poor. In Milwaukee, single-parent families are more than three times as likely as married families to be poor. If marriage isn’t a cure-all, it at least is powerful medicine.

Better, it’s self-administered. Creating more jobs and reducing crime probably would relieve poverty, but they’re difficult to do quickly, and they’re things that generally must be done for poor communities rather than by them. Marriage skills, say those in the field, are easily taught. Talking up marriage to children is something mothers and pastors and teachers can do right now. Marrying doesn’t require a federal grant.

Marriage, no matter how dented, remains the institution that societies have used for ages to create a stable, protected space for children. The underclass stands out, statistically, in eschewing it. If society’s looking for some means to break the cycle of poverty, it makes sense to take up the tool readily at hand.

Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

« Back to News