Via Bryce Covert , I see that Senator Rand Paul told a Chamber of Commerce audience recently that being “married with kids versus unmarried with kids is the difference between living in poverty and not” and that the government “should sell that message.”

As you might imagine, Paul’s claim is widely off base. The table below shows the number of parents (caring for kids under age 18) who live below the poverty line in Paul’s state of Kentucky. There are about 70,000 people in Kentucky who are “married with kids”, not counting an additional 16,000 people who are also “married with kids” but separated. By comparison, there are about 62,000 never-married parents with kids living in poverty in Kentucky (and some of them are poor despite living with a partner who they will go on to marry). In short, the vast majority of poor parents in Kentucky are either currently married with kids (48%) or have been married (15% are divorced and 2% widowed). Only about one out of every three Kentucky parents living in poverty have never married.

Because the current federal poverty measure ($23,836 for a family of four) has not been updated in a meaningful way for changes in typical living changes over the last several decades, it bears little resemblance to what the vast majority of Americans believe is needed to avoid poverty or obtain a minimally adequate standard of living. A threshold set at 150% of the current poverty level ($35,754 for a family of four) better approximates the public's views on this matter, although it still falls far short of the minimum income level they think is needed to "make ends meet." As the last two columns of the table below show, if we use a poverty/minimum income line more in tune with public consensus, the share of parents who are poor shifts even further in the married direction.

Kentucky Parents (18-64) Living Below 100% and 150% of Poverty, by Marital Status in 2010-2012


Below 100% of Poverty

Below 150% of Poverty


Percent of Total


Percent of Total

Marital Status






Married, but Separated

















Never Married





Source: Author's calculation, Current Population Survey, ASEC

It’s also worth noting that separated or divorced parents living in poverty were almost by definition in deeply troubled marriages—marriages that had higher than average marital poverty rates before they dissolved, and in many cases were not in the best interests of the children to maintain. According to researchers Paul Amato and Jacob Cheadle, several studies have found that “in the absence of divorce, exposure to chronic, unresolved conflict between parents increases the risk of [emotional, educational, and other] problems for children.” Just one example: Susan Jekielek of Ohio State University has found that “children remaining in high conflict environments generally exhibit lower levels of well-being than children who have experienced high levels of parental conflict but whose parents divorce or separate.” [italics are mine].

I remember back in the day when the marriage-promotion push really started heating up (early 2000s), conservative marriage-promoters like Wade Horn were usually very careful to say they were only interested in increasing “healthy” marriages, and that marriage was not their primary poverty solution. Here’s Horn, for example, in 2004:

"... government ought to make it clear that it is in the business of promoting not just marriage, but healthy marriage.... Government’s role is not simply to move marriage rates; we can do that by making it impossible to get out of marriages, but we would trap a lot of people in bad marriages. ... I want to be very clear about is that promoting healthy marriage is not the [Bush] Administration’s strategy to reduce poverty."

By contrast, in today’s marriage-promotion debates, the adjective “healthy” has all but disappeared and marriage unmodified has become the right’s go-to solution to poverty. On the bright side, this should result in plenty of Mad-Men style policy proposals over the next few years, like the one floated by a Manhattan Institute fellow earlier this week to provide a married-parent tax credit but only to parents who are married before conception. As Neil deMause tweeted in a discussion of this proposal, I “can’t wait to see IRS administering pregnancy tests as part of marriage license applications.”

Finally and more seriously, while poverty rates are much higher for single-parents families than for married-parent ones—in large part to due to our failure to provide adequate social insurance to single parents —we shouldn’t let this blind us to the fact that marital poverty is extremely widespread in the United States, again mostly due to policy. It’s also worth noting that simply having kids, whether married or not, substantially increases the poverty risk that parents face. In contrast to the right's Mad-Men marriage-promotion agenda, the solutions to both "married with kids" poverty and "unmarried with kids" poverty are not complicated, divisive, or silly. They include measures that would help both working-class and middle-class families, like paid family leave, transforming Temporary Assistance from a failed and diffuse block grant scheme to a modern social insurance program for unemployed and underemployed parents and other caregivers, and expanding child care assistance and pre-school.