LENOX

Is marriage an antidote to poverty? Are children best off in a two-parent home?

At the risk of stepping on a third rail of political and social discourse, I’m suggesting a resounding "yes" based not only on personal experience but also on recent Census Bureau reports.

To be sure, there are toxic family situations that harm children, sometimes for life. We all know that. But, in general, I would argue that a nuclear family -- two parents, straight or gay -- is the most nourishing environment to raise a youngster.

Now to tackle the thorny issue of marriage, or at least co-habitation, as a contributor to economic well-being, since we’re marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s praiseworthy, and largely successful, war on poverty.

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Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, made a positive contribution to the debate.

The Florida Republican declared that "until at least a few decades ago, our economy proved sufficiently dynamic and innovative to replace old jobs with new ones, but that hasn’t been happening in recent years."

Then, he stated, "Social factors also play a major role in denying equal opportunity. 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."

A litany of statistics followed to support his argument, and they turn out to be accurate.

In 1964, 93 percent of children were born to married parents. In 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 60 percent of newborns would come home to a married mom and dad.

Here’s the eye-opener: 71 percent of the families with children trying to survive below the poverty line are not headed by a married couple. Really? The well-respected Tampa Bay Times, which operates the Politifact.com site, checked Rubio’s facts and came up with a positive verdict.

The Census Bureau pegged the poverty rate for single parents with children at 37 percent. For married couples, the rate is 6.8 percent.

Politifact found some relatively minor flaws in Rubio’s stats. For example, he was referring only to single-parent homes headed by women. About 20 percent of single-parent households are headed by men.

More recent census data from 2011 covering all single parent homes, headed by either men or women, shows the same 37 percent below the poverty line, compared to 11 percent for married families with kids.

The bottom line for Politifact is that marriage decreases the likelihood of child poverty by 71 percent -- not far from Rubio’s claim of 82 percent.

Left-leaning research groups have pushed back against Rubio, citing the high divorce rate among single mothers who married -- 64 percent. Single mothers who marry and later divorce are worse off economically than single mothers who never marry.

Let’s be clear: no moral judgment should be made against women who choose to have children and raise them alone. It’s a social and cultural phenomenon of our times, primarily in less-advantaged economic groups and among racial and ethnic minorities.

In the upper classes, most college-educated women marry before they have children -- fewer than one in 10 kids in these groups live in a single-parent home. Among women with a high school education or less, six out of 10 children are born outside marriage.

Kristi Williams, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, told CNBC that there are economic benefits for children whose biological parents marry and stay together, but that’s rare -- only 16 percent of the low-income unwed mothers were still married to the father five years after the child’s birth.

Research by Williams and other sociologists found that low-income women, like most Americans, desire a successful marriage but are hesitant because they know economic stress can undermine even a healthy relationship.

"In many ways it’s a rational decision, and that’s why this idea of promoting marriage is sort of misguided," Williams said. "Women, in many ways, are probably more aware than the government of the challenges of having a beneficial marriage."

But Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said on CNBC that he doesn’t think this country should accept widespread single motherhood. He suggested that supporting stable marriages before having children could help the working poor rise into better circumstances.

"Regardless of your ideological status, we have a crisis in this country when it comes to quality and stability of relationships for poor, working class people," he argued. "Marriage is not a panacea for that crisis, but I would say it’s one part of the policy mix."

Or as sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University has put it: "It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged."

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It seems profoundly narcissistic to bring a child into a world where he or she is doomed to live in poverty, perhaps for a lifetime. But that’s a futile argument, given that we live in an age defined by widespread "me-first" and "selfie" priorities.

The best we can hope for is to preserve, protect -- and expand if we can -- the government’s safety net in order to extend a life preserver to the innocent young victims of social disintegration. That way, we give them a fighting chance to break away from the straightjacket of grinding poverty.

To contact Clarence Fanto: cfanto@yahoo.com