The “death” of marriage is the leading cause of poverty in Kansas and the nation, a national expert on poverty told an audience in Wichita on Wednesday.
Robert Rector, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, advocated for marriage as a primary tool to reduce childhood poverty. He spoke to about 300 people at a town hall meeting on childhood poverty sponsored by Gov. Sam Brownback at the Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview downtown.
His remarks drew a protest by Occupy Wichita members during his speech, which led to an arrest.
Rector told the audience, “Being married reduces the probability of poverty by about 84 percent.”
Citing census figures, statistics from the Center for National Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and research by a Harvard professor, Rector said most poverty in America predated the recent economic recession and that welfare programs haven’t reduced poverty. Education and jobs are important, but they aren’t enough, he said.
Rector said the probability of poverty increases in single-parent homes, while two-parent homes are less likely to be in poverty.
He played a major role in creating the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation that required recipients to work or get job training to earn benefits. He said 70 percent of welfare assistance such as Medicaid, food stamps and public housing goes to single-parent families.
“The welfare state is to a considerable degree, at least as if affects children, a support system that has compensated for the erosion and collapse of marriage,” he said.
Rector said the poverty rate among single parents who dropped out of high school is greater than the poverty rate of married couples who have a high school dropout as head of the household.
Poverty isn’t about teen pregnancy or race, he said.
“This is long, long since – if it ever was – a predominantly black problem. It is way, way into the rest of society now,” Rector said. “The problem did occur in blacks before it occurred in whites, but whites … are catching up like gangbusters.”
Rector said he doesn’t advocate forcing people into marriage, just informing at-risk young people about the issue so they can make wise decisions.
As he spoke, about 15 Occupy Wichita protesters seated in the audience stood in a line and turned their backs on Rector. After he concluded his remarks, they began chanting things they said Brownback’s administration has done that lead to poverty. They continued to chant during a five-minute break.
The group was asked to leave. As the group left, one protester tried to pull another back into the room. She was arrested by police. The other protesters left the building.
“We don’t believe marriage should be a financial decision,” said Mike Shatz, one of the protesters.
The audience broke into roundtable discussions to come up with suggestions to reduce poverty in the state. They were asked to address three issues: family structure, education, and child abuse and neglect.
Among the suggestions that emerged: Recognize that a two-parent home could include two parents of the same sex; provide more education for preschool children; use seniors and organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club to help with after-school activities; make sure families that receive help give help to the community in return; have parents mentor other parents; and establish clearinghouses for children to report abuse.
A similar meeting was held in Kansas City, Kan., on Monday. The final meeting will be today in Garden City.
Suggestions from the meetings will be collated by the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University and compiled in a report to be turned in to the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services by the end of December.
Robert Siedlecki, SRS secretary, who presided over the meeting, said the Wichita gathering produced ideas that he and the governor will heed.
People who didn’t attend the meeting may offer suggestions on the SRS website, srs.ks.gov, he said.