As we reach the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, due consideration must be given to the anti-poverty policies that have seen real success over the past five decades. But with any celebration of a government program comes the inevitable criticism from the right wing, and, like clock work, conservative pundits and politicians have been quick to zero in on one perceived fault in particular: The War on Poverty's lack of focus on marriage.
In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had this to say:
The truth is that the greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn't a government program. It's called marriage. [Think Progress]
This is absurd. As Matt Yglesias at Slate points out, the capacity of marriage to reduce poverty has nothing to do with marriage itself, but rather with the calculation of the federal poverty line and the effectiveness of splitting costs (as roommates do). Nonetheless, the notion that marriage specifically should be wielded to reduce poverty has been championed by conservative thinkers, many of them Christian, for some time. The Bush administration notably funneled $1.5 billion dollars into marriage promotion programs, to the delight of Christian-run think tanks and lobby groups. Rubio is Roman Catholic, describing himself in a 2010 interview with Christianity Today as "theologically in line with the Roman Catholic Church." Thus, at least, there appears to be a moral valence to the conservative co-opting of marriage as a means to reduce poverty.
But in presenting marriage as a kind of handy financial option for the struggling, conservatives like Rubio fall into one of the greatest traps to threaten marriage in modernity.
Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas warned in 2001 that he was "not at all sure how we as Christians can sustain the practices of singleness, marriage, and the having of children in a world that makes those practices a matter of individual satisfaction." In the Christian frame, marriage cannot be rightly understood only as a means to a material end; for example, Hauerwas warns that the identification of marriage purely with romantic love runs the risk of dissolving marriages in times of diminished affection. Likewise, if marriage is framed as a smart financial strategy, then we are submitting that it’s right to enter into it for material gain.
Consider, for example, a hypothetical low-income heterosexual couple: The woman is a single mom and a full-time retail worker making $7.25 an hour for a total of $15,080 a year, while her boyfriend is a construction worker. When he works the pay is relatively good, but his job is project-based and therefore somewhat unpredictable. Their combined incomes would be more than enough to support them in a good season, but if work is hard to find, the woman may find her meager income split in half rather than increased or doubled. This obviously makes it financially harder to raise her child. Research on marriage in low-income communities published by sociologist Kristi Williams at The Ohio State University suggests that couples in low-income communities report exactly this sort of financial insecurity in their marriages, rather than the helpful anti-poverty boost that Republicans promise.
But would it be right, therefore, to advise our hypothetical single mother not to get married to her construction worker boyfriend? Only if we’re trying to use marriage as a means to increase wealth. On the other hand, if marriage is an intrinsic good, or an institution we wish to encourage regardless of available material resources, then the wise option would be to detach our encouragement of marriage from those material things. After all, among the many the reasons the Bible and its greatest commentators (like Saint Augustine) provide for entering into marriage, none of them have to do with financial gain, lest those who are poor or would become poorer be excluded from such a spiritually and socially beneficial institution. In other words: We should try to support marriage rather than expecting it to support us.
What would that look like?
If we return to our hypothetical retail employee and her construction worker groom-to-be, we can imagine outstanding material and moral benefits from a cash transfer program, similar to Social Security, that would give a set amount of money to low-income people every month to raise their standard of living. With less material insecurity, those willing to be married but concerned about the financial impacts would be free to enter into marriage together without expecting that holy union to perform the worldly work of material resources, and we would be one step away from framing marriage as a tool to secure individual benefit. This strategy should appeal to those who are invested both in demonstrably lowering poverty and in encouraging marriage in its fullest, most genuine sense.