RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
New census figures show that nearly a third of families headed by a single mother live in poverty. In fact, they're four times more likely to be poor than married couple families. It's a longstanding disparity that's led a number of analysts and politicians to tout marriage as a solution to curbing poverty. Others say it's not so simple, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Just last week, the Heritage Foundation put out a report called "Marriage: America's Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty." And if you followed the Republican presidential contest, it was hard to miss former candidate Rick Santorum proclaim three simple steps to stay out of poverty.
RICK SANTORUM: Work, graduate from high school, and get married before you have children. Those three things...
LUDDEN: That calculation came from Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who notes that more than 40 percent of all U.S. births are now outside marriage.
ISABEL SAWHILL: There is no question in my mind that the change in family structure in the U.S., meaning the growth of single parent families, has played a role in increasing poverty and inequality.
LUDDEN: Of course, Sawhill says, that's also been greatly exacerbated by the recession.
SAWHILL: But it is a lot harder if you only have one earner in the family to weather a downturn in the economy.
LUDDEN: So the temptation has been to promote marriage. The Bush administration tried hard, spending nearly a billion dollars in federal and state money on marriage education classes for lower income couples. The Obama administration continued them on a smaller scale. But the effort's been widely deemed a failure.
Benjamin Karney of UCLA was asked by the state of Florida to look into the program's effectiveness. He says the class is aimed to help with things like communication and understanding.
BENJAMIN KARNEY: But lower income groups are significantly more likely to say having a job is more important for marriage. Having money in the bank is more important for marriage. And the problems that they have are not relational problems, they're economic problems. Well, no surprise.
LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz, of The Evergreen State College says women know they'll be much better off if they marry a man with a good wage.
STEPHANIE COONTZ: But in many low income communities there are not many men like that available. So poverty is as often a cause of unwed motherhood as it is a result.
LUDDEN: In other words, women choose not to marry, sometimes even if a man is already working hard. A big problem, says Coontz, many men today are paid less than their dads made at the same age.
COONTZ: By 2007, and that's before the start of the recession, the average employed guy with a high school degree made almost four dollars less an hour, in constant dollars, than his counterpart in 1979.
LUDDEN: And economic stress is strongly linked to divorce, which is now far more common among lower income couples than the college educated. Meantime, both Coontz and the Brookings Institution's Sawhill say the decline of marriage is transcending the ranks of the poor. Sawhill points out a growing number of single mothers do have some college education.
SAWHILL: This is not, you know, an inner city phenomenon anymore, which many people seem to assume it is. This is now a mainstream phenomenon and getting stronger every year.
LUDDEN: Yet even in the middle class, parenting alone is tough. And such women, she says, are at greater risk of falling into poverty.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.