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A Rising Poverty Rate for Married Parents

Sharon Lerner

For years now, we've been hearing that single parenthood is at the root of American poverty. If unmarried mothers would just settle down, the argument went, then our national poverty rate would go down, too. But new data show how wrong that argument is. Half of poor parents raising kids under 18 are now married, according to the report just released from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The poverty rate for married couples with children is going up, having increased 47 percent since 2000.

Single parents and their kids have it hard, too—and there are plenty of them. As Karen Kornbluh recently pointed out here at The Atlantic, the U.S. has the world's highest percentage of children under 15 living in households led by single parents, most of whom are mothers. Almost half of those kids live in poverty, an appalling fact that Kornbluh rightly blames on the lack of paid leave and affordable childcare.

But the absence of those supports, which make it easier for workers to keep their jobs while taking care of their kids, is weighing down married parents, too. When you add the recession into the mix, it's easy to see why poverty is climbing particularly high among married couples with kids.

The bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent fall of wages and rise of unemployment affected everyone. Married couples who don't have kids have seen their poverty rate climb 22 percent since 2000, for instance. And single mothers have experienced roughly the same size increase in that time, likely because they have always been much more financially vulnerable. But, according to Shawn Fremstad, author of the CEPR report, "Married couples with kids are even more recession-sensitive," having more expenses and less flexibility than people without kids and further to fall than single parents.

The point isn't to vie for the distinction of being the worst off, of course, but to get a more accurate understanding of poverty so we might make a little more headway on getting rid of it. The single mom narrative—specifically the idea that having a child out of wedlock causes poverty—has stubbornly held on to the public imagination since the days of Murphy Brown and before.

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