Two remarkable statistics reported in the past two days by the U.S. Census Bureau caught my attention. Today it was reported that 48% of Americans are now in poverty or are qualified as low-income. Yesterday the same Commerce Department bureau reported that the percentage of married adult Americans has fallen to a record low of only 51%. If you turn the number around that means 49% remain unmarried. Then it struck me how close the two numbers were. 49% unmarried…48% low income or poor. Is there a relationship?
As you digest these numbers remember the old saying about examining percentages too closely, “Beat a statistic to death and it will tell you anything”. But having offered that disclaimer we have to acknowledge that these two startling statistics are connected.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines an income of $45k a year as low-income for a family of four. Since the average American individual income is only $40,584, in my state of Washington it’s $43,564, the average American needs two incomes to avoid being low-income. The average household income in 2010 in the U.S. was $63k. It’s certainly lower in 2011.
What the two reports also include are the fact that minorities make up more of the poor and more of the unmarried. Only 31% of African-American adults are married, Hispanics were just above 50% and whites were around 70%. Not surprisingly the poverty rates for each ethnic group roughly correspond. The 2010 Census says the percentage of white kids under 18 in poverty at 12%; for Hispanics its 35%, for blacks it’s nearly 39%.
This is not intended to be a lamentation of the decline of American values, but merely an examination of what may be smart to do, and what may be detrimental. It seems finding a partner and making a commitment to them and them to you to help you through the tough times and help you better enjoy the good times is not only a reflection of good moral values as some would say, but also good financial judgement.
As one who has been married for 25 years I can tell you honestly that it’s not easy. I can tell you staying together this long and helping each other makes things better. At various times in the previous 25 years I’ve been unemployed or without significant income a couple of times. My wife has been in the same position too on a couple of occasions. There is no doubt without the other’s income to lean on each of us would have been in a much worse position then and now.
The Washington Post reports that the marriage patterns are a striking departure from the middle of the 20th century, when the percentage of adults who never wed was in the low single digits. In 1960, for example, when most baby boomers were children, 72 percent of all adults were married. The median age for brides was barely 20, and the grooms were just a couple of years older.
“In the 1950s, if you weren’t married, people thought you were mentally ill,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who studies families. “Marriage was mandatory. Now it’s culturally optional.” One has to wonder, why? Why has it become culturally optional, especially when this evidence and other factors show how marriage is a net-plus for society?
Now in the area of poverty there are certainly other factors to consider, education for one. During this extended recession while unemployment has remained above 9% for nearly the entire Obama Administration; unemployment for those with at least a College Bachelors Degree has consistently remained well below 5% (otherwise known as full employment). But here again there is a tie-in. More than 70% of those with a college education are married. It’s WELL below 50% for those with only High School or less.
I favor a change in attitude about marriage. Let our kids know that living with a partner outside of marriage is not only contrary to our values, our religion (if applicable), but also to their self-interest. It should be OK NOT to be married. But it should be recognized that we all benefit from the values too many have derisively called “old-fashioned” for far too many years.
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