NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Not to be Poor

January 15, 2003

About 31 million Americans live in households with incomes below the poverty level, according to the latest U.S. Census data. But poverty is more than a lack of income -- it's also the consequence of specific behaviors and decisions. The 2001 Census data clearly shows that dropping out of high school or having children outside of marriage substantially increases one's chances of long-term poverty.

On the other hand, completing high school, getting a full-time job and marrying are behaviors which substantially reduce the chances of poverty.

The Census Bureau reports:

  • Only 9.6 percent of high school graduates are poor, compared to 22.2 percent of those without a diploma.
  • Only 2.6 percent of people 16 years or older with full-time jobs are poor.
  • By contrast, 11.4 percent of part-time workers fall under the poverty line, and 20.8 percent of those who do not work fall below the poverty line.

Having children outside of marriage is costly for both the individual and the child. The Census Bureau reports:

  • More than half (51.6 percent) of never-married households with two or more children under the age of 18 were poor, compared to only 7.9 percent of married households.

On average, a child raised by a never-married mother is 9 times more likely to live in poverty than a child raised by two parents in an intact marriage, according to a Heritage Foundation analysis.

The government should encourage behavior that helps people avoid poverty. Programs such as the 1996 welfare reforms encouraged work -- and the rate of poverty fell. Proposals to encourage marriage, like President Bush's plan to eliminate the marriage penalty, could also have similar benefits.

Source: Blake Bailey, "How Not to Be Poor," Brief Analysis No. 428, January 15, 2003, National Center for Policy Analysis.

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