Attacking the Roots of Child Poverty

Kevin D. Dayaratna

More than $20 trillion has been spent on means-tested welfare programs since President Lyndon Johnson began his War on Poverty, and the Obama Administration has added significantly to this figure, yet millions of American children continue to live in poverty.[1] As a result, there has been a consistent clamor for policymakers to address the issue. In thinking about these problems, however, it is imperative that we look beyond mere symptoms and truly understand the causes.

Policy research has illustrated that the overwhelming predictors of child poverty are marital status of the parents, age of the parents, and educational level of the parents.[2] These findings coincide with common sense. Two parents have the ability to bring more income into a household than one parent has. Additionally, better educated parents have better employment prospects and consequently have greater potential to support a family comfortably than less educated parents have. Older parents are also generally more mature and thus more capable of taking on the challenges associated with having children than younger parents are.

It is therefore regrettable that marriage in America has consistently declined over the past several decades while unwed births have consistently increased. In 1964, for example, 93 percent of children were born to a married mother and father; in 2007, this number plummeted to 59 percent. Unwed births, however, increased more than 30 percentage points over the same period.3

Policies to eradicate child poverty should thus be aimed at strengthening marriage, reforming our welfare programs that penalize marriage, and improving education. For example, many welfare programs penalize marriage because welfare benefits decrease as income rises. As a result, for many single-mother welfare recipients, getting married results in a reduction of benefits and an overall decline in the couple’s joint income. Certain policies, such as reforming the earned income tax credit, could potentially ameliorate this issue.[4]

Additionally, welfare programs should be reformed to require work and/or study requirements for recipients who are able-bodied. As has been illustrated with a variety of state and federal reforms, these requirements not only will limit enrollment to people who truly need the welfare benefits, but also have the potential to provide valuable training to enable recipients to go back to work.[5]

Although child poverty has been a concern among policymakers for decades, there are many policy reforms that can help to ameliorate this problem. In fact, the proper reforms will not only help to reduce child poverty, but also ensure that every person has a chance to realize the American dream.

Kevin D. Dayaratna is Senior Statistician and Research Programmer in the Center for Data Analysis, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.

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1. Robert Rector, Katherine Bradley, and Rachel Sheffield, “Obama to Spend $10.3 Trillion on Welfare: Uncovering the Full Cost of Means-Tested Welfare or Aid to the Poor,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 67, September 16, 2009,

2. Kevin D. Dayaratna, “Contributions to Bayesian Statistical Modeling in Public Policy Research,” PhD dissertation, University of Maryland, 2014, and Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins, “Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare,” Brookings Institution, Welfare Reform & Beyond Policy Brief No. 28, September 2003, (accessed May 17, 2016).

3. Robert Rector, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2465,
 September 16, 2010,

4. Ibid.

5. Robert Rector, “Welfare Reform, Dependency Reduction, and Labor Market Entry.” Journal of Labor Research, Vol 14, No. 3 (September 1993), pp. 283–297; Robert Rector, “Obama’s End Run on Welfare Reform, Part One: Understanding Workfare,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2730, September 19, 2012,; and Robert Rector, Rachel Sheffield and Kevin D. Dayaratna, “Maine Food Stamp Work Requirement Cuts Non-Parent Caseload by 80 Percent,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3091, February 8, 2016,

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