Thursday, March 21, 2013

Failed GOP Solutions: Is Marriage Really the Answer to Poverty in Oklahoma? 2/2

by Nomad

In PART ONE of this two-part series, we investigated a bit of curious legislation in Oklahoma. The House Speaker there decided to that that federal funds which were supposed to be used to find employment for needy families, should instead be used for statewide public service announcements promoting marriage as a solution to poverty. The idea, highly supported by organizations like The Heritage Foundation and the Christian Right, has been used in many other Red States.

Heritage Marriage Poverty ads
The Heritage Foundation promotes marriage
as a solution to poverty in ads like these.
The Practicalities of Marriage
When it comes to the Marriage Initiative as a way of reducing poverty, what so wrong about it? 
First of all, it hasn’t worked.

Despite the more than a decade of the Marriage Initiative efforts in Oklahoma, the single-parent problem is not going away. 

According to the latest US Census Bureau, about 28 percent of Oklahoma's families are led by a single parent, with that figure increasing to more than 40 percent in some rural counties. In some counties, the number has climbed to around 45.5 percent of all  households. 

Unlike many states where poverty is a feature of urban life, in many states like Oklahoma, poverty is a way of life in the more rural zones. (That's just like any third world country, as a matter of fact.)
So what can account for the rise of single parent households in the state? 

For one thing, divorce is much more of a problem than unwed mothers. As NBCNews reported in 2011,
Oklahoma has extraordinarily high rates of divorce among both men and women compared to the rest of the country. According to the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, 32 percent of Oklahoma adults who have ever been married have been divorced. The association lists financial troubles as one of the leading causes of divorce in the state.

The sponsors of the Marriage Initiative don't like to talk about divorce. for very obvious reasons. The truth about divorce and its causes refuses to fit into framework of their marriage agenda.

In any case, let's ignore the divorce rate and just concentrate on marriage as a solution to poverty. Even then, their logic doesn't hold up against reality.

As even the most romantic of couples know, a marriage has its practical concerns. From the Heritage Foundation's simplistic view,  all you have to do is to convince two working adults to unite as one and then the burden of poverty becomes less. After marriage, (Allakazaam, allakazoo!) a one-income family suddenly becomes a two-income household. Two people (later three)  can live cheaper than one. Order is thus restored in society. Magically- in a swirl of sparkles and pastels- the problem of single parent poverty disappears. That's the theory anyway. 

However, one problem with this Heritage hocus-pocus. 
This presumes that there will be employment available at a wage which can reasonably sustain a family. As we have seen, financial problems can lead to divorce, but the flip side to that is that without income from stable employment, there’s little incentive to marry in the first place. You can't live on love alone. (But it's a effective way to diet.)
Generally speaking intelligent people get married and have a family only when they can afford to do so. To encourage couples to marry without the necessary finances is both irresponsible and cruel.

An article in NPR seems to confirm that. Quoting social psychologist Benjamin Karney of UCLA who has studied the effectiveness of the marriage initiative:
“[L]ower-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."
So, despite what you have been repeatedly told, spending federal dollars on workshops and public service announcements which promote the benefits of marriage is just throwing money down the matrimonial rathole. 
The first step, therefore, is economics. In other words, jobs. But not just jobs, like waitressing or slinging burgers at the McWendy's. We are talking about stable employment at a decent wage.

The Working Poor
For Oklahomans thinking about marriage, the problem isn’t actually unemployment but under-employment.

Contrary to what you might think, most single parents are not entirely government dependent. As one source notes, in Oklahoma,
  • 39% (81,111) of children in poor families have at least one parent who is employed either part-year or part-time. 
  • 34% (69,825) of children in poor families have at least one parent who is employed full-time, year-round. 
  • The remaining 29% are completely unemployed.
A large percentage of single parents, therefore, are working (either part or full time) and whatever government support they may or may not receive is used only to supplement an inadequate income. 

Although the minimum wage in Oklahoma manages to keep up to the federal standard, ($7.25 per hour) there are a lot of important exemptions and qualifications to be eligible even for that lowest wage limit. 

For example, the state requires pay at that minimum level only when there are 10 or more full-time workers at any one location or with annual gross sales of more than $100,000. All other employers must pay at least $2 an hour, such as restaurants paying that amount to service staff who earn tips. 
Such exemptions are part of the problem. With these loopholes, small businesses are being encouraged not to hire more than ten workers or to hire a staff of part-time workers in order to pay less than the minimum wage. Additionally, part-time workers do not qualify for benefits, such as health insurance, sick leave or vacation time. So that's yet another encouragement to pay a little as possible to their workers by hiring more part-time workers. And when or if they lose these poor-paying jobs, they will receive very limited unemployment benefits. (Quite possibly, they will not qualify for any unemployment benefit at all.) 

Even if they do qualify for minimum wage, is that actually enough to live on? To raise a family on?
Second only to Idaho, 7% of all Oklahoma’s workers, aged 16 and over, receive minimum wage or lower. That’s considered right at or just above the poverty level. 
But let's take another look. According the Living Wage calculator, which estimates how much in real terms a wage must be to sustain a family, to live in, for example, Oklahoma County the income of two adults (whether both work or not) with a child must be $16.14 per hour. So even if both husband and wife find minimum wage jobs, it would still not be sufficient. 
(Keep in mind that wage is calculated at full-time wages. Part-time workers would also be responsible for their own health insurance -at least before Obamacare. Therefore, any health emergency could easily wipe a family out.) 

So it is true that there are jobs, but they aren’t the kind of jobs that one can sustain a family on. Inviting young people to marry without giving the economic means to support a family is not a solution to poverty. Quite the opposite.
Oklahoma remarkably low unemployment rate of 6.2% for a state that is among the nation’s poorest. The poverty rate of 17.2% has inched up each year from the 2008 rate of 15.9%. The low median income suggests a need for higher paying jobs as Oklahoma relies heavily on agricultural production. Also, government and military, which tend to be low-paying jobs, account for the highest percentage of jobs in the state. But Oklahoma is also a major producer of oil and gas. Growth in the energy sector, which tends to pay more, would help improve on Oklahoma’s median income of $43,225.
Those figures apply to all Oklahomans  regardless of race. But the full picture become apparent when you consider that black workers in Oklahoma were unemployed at more than twice the rate (13.1 percent) of white workers in 2010.

African Americans and Women
black poor children graph oklahomaAlthough it is true that a majority (60.8 percent) of Oklahomans in poverty are white, any serious attempt to solve Oklahoma’s poverty must also focus on the African American, Latino and Native American communities. 
Within the state, according one source, after the white population, the breakdown of poverty-stricken minorities looks like this.
  • African-Americans (33.7 percent), 
  • Hispanics/Latinos (28.9 percent), 
  • Native Americans (21.9 percent)
And the problem has only gotten worse in recent years. The poverty rate for African Americans increased by 3.6 percentage points while the poverty rate for whites by only 0.3 percentage points in 2011. 

Another reason why there are so many single-parents in Oklahoma’s black community is the high level of incarceration in the state. Oklahoma’s black population comprised 7.4 percent of the state’s general population, but 30.5 percent of the state’s prison population in 2010. And according to 2006 figures, Nearly 39 percent of all black men in Oklahoma have been either incarcerated or on probation for a felony conviction at some point in their lives. 
Naturally this doesn’t improve their chances for finding suitable employment. 
Oklahoma is not alone in its high rates of incarceration of African American males. That's a national problem too. No public service announcement is going to change that. 
According to one source:
The incarceration rate for American-Americans is so high that young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to go to jail than to find a job, thereby causing the breakup of families and instilling further poverty upon them.
In more practical terms, as far as a potential spouse, an unemployed ex-con is hardly the ideal choice as a husband and father. 

So what have the Oklahoma legislators done about creating job opportunities of minorities? Well, last year, Republican leaders there submitted a measure for a referendum vote that would wipe out all Affirmative Action programs in the state in state government hiring, in education and contracting practices. Rather ironically, they told critics that the amendment's purpose is to help the state get past racism by showing that a person's qualifications are more important than skin color. 

It’s a nice thing to boast about but how true is it? A recent study from the Center for Equal Opportunity found evidence of “racial discrimination in law, undergraduate, and medical school admissions at the University of Oklahoma.” 
So, if that's anything to go by, in Oklahoma, even without the possibility of discrimination in hiring, the color of one's skin will have much to do with what kind of qualifications you will eventually be able to acquire at university level. 

In the state where whites form a 72% majority, it is no surprise that the measure passed by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. This was achieved by playing on the public dislike of the use of quotas in hiring which is, in fact, as illegal a hiring practice as discrimination itself. 

The truth about Affirmative Action may surprise you. A Pew Research found 70 percent of Americans in favor of affirmative action for women, African-Americans, and other minorities. Here's another surprising fact. And it’s not only African-Americans who benefit from Affirmative Action programs.  According to the book, The Affirmative Action Debate, white women benefited enormously when Affirmative Action was implemented.
In the thirty years following the onset of equal opportunity, white women reached their proportionate share in management occupations and more than tripled their rate of college completion.
As notes, the idea of reverse discrimination, which is often used to argue against any kind of Affirmative Action program, is, in fact, imaginary.
Equal opportunity initiatives do not advance women and minorities over Whites and men; they privilege fair and equal access for all groups. A scholarly analysis of thousands of ‘reverse discrimination’ cases in federal courts in the mid-1990s found that almost all of them lacked legal merit. Most of these cases failed because disappointed applicants erroneously believed that a woman or minority got the job based on race or sex, not because their qualifications were superior to their own.
So that whole quota myth is a bunch of malarkey.
Since white women make up the majority of all single family households, there is no excuse for eliminating all Affirmative Action programs in the Oklahoma. No excuse but racism based on fear and ignorance, that is.
Altogether, the Oklahoma legislature seems to have done all it could to make matters worse.
*    *    *    *
Why Not Get Serious?
Graph Education levels of parents of poor children
There’s nothing wrong with giving workshops and assistance to people who decide to marry and begin a family- that’s important- but not if that’s your primary means of tackling poverty in your state. 
There are many better approaches. But it requires a bold rejection of methods that haven't worked in the past. 
  • Comprehensive Sex-Education
First and foremost, every teenager should be be offered classes in sex education. Oklahoma does not require sex education, but if it is taught, it must have the promotion of abstinence as a primary goal. The effectiveness of abstinence-based sex education has long been been challenged in study after study. Like so many ideas from the Bush administration, it may not have worked but it certainly pleased special interests. Abstinence-based sex education's main backers are Christian Right, the very same people supporting the idea that marriage is the solution to poverty.
  • Raising the High School Graduation Rates
Another avenue worth pursuing is the creation of more programs for helping young people stay in school or receiving their GED if they’ve dropped out. Students that complete high school, at least, have a chance at finding suitable employment, perhaps enough to support a family  However, compared to other states, Oklahoma, according to researchers, has made "limited or no progress" in increasing its high school graduation rates.
A high school diploma may not mean much as it used to. But without one, finding employment-especially in hard times- can be next to impossible. But keeping students in school also benefits the state:
It's estimated that high school graduates will earn $130,000 more over their lifetimes than dropouts, and that high school graduates will generate more than $200,000 in higher tax revenues and savings in government expenditures over their lifetime, the report said. And, the report said that if the 90 percent goal had already been met, 580,000 more students would have graduated last year, generating $1.8 billion in additional revenue because of increased economic activity.
If you don't wish to build a culture of dependent poor, then you have to help them increase their ability to become independent. 
  • Higher Education for Single Mothers 
Why stop at high school?
One program, SMART (Single Mothers Academic Resource Team) has had success at supporting single parents “realize their educational dream.” In a variety of important ways, SMART offers a helping hand to those women with the desire but not the financial resources to better themselves. 
According to organizers, education may be a far better solution to long term poverty than marriage.
A college education provides a family with the earning power to move out of impoverishment and off of assistance programs that costs Oklahoma taxpayers millions annually. Federal and state governments pay up to $2,000 less per year on social services for persons who have a college education.
Supporting single mothers as they complete their higher education goals diminishes the dismal statistics about Oklahoma women including the fact that not even 1 in 7 completes four or more years of higher education.
Why not? It may not fit into the GOP meme of punishing the poor but it could work.
  • Elimination of the Marriage Penalty Tax
Marriage Tax MapEven if the state sincerely believes that marriage is the answer- despite all the evidence to the contrary- it still continues to punish people who marry in the form of higher taxes. 
One  problem in Oklahoma (but not limited to that state) is while, on one hand, the state spends federal dollars promoting marriage, tax codes there still penalize married couples. According to these 2013 tax code, married taxpayers are taxed on combined incomes and  the combined income of two earners can be significantly more than if the two incomes were taxed separately. It is clear to see how this would affect poor and middle class families (where both partners are obliged to work to make ends meet) than the more affluent households.
  • Other ideas
There are other approaches for the Oklahoma legislature to consider. A reversal on the ban on Affirmative Action, for instance. It should never have come up for a referendum in the first place. If that is too extreme a proposal, then why not better oversight of unfair hiring practices. Even an attempt at closing loopholes for minimum wage requirements might be another good step at addressing the problem of the chronic poor. 

In Red-State Oklahoma, the "brilliant" solution from Republican legislators seems to have devolved to offering government support when it is not needed and funding a public service announcement encouraging young people, who can't afford it,  to marry and have babies. 

Is that really and truly the best solution to the have to offer the poor families of Oklahoma?