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Though the candidates rarely discussed poverty during the 2012 presidential election season, it now seems to have replaced the so-called war on women as the topic neither party can stop talking about. For the first time in my lifetime, Republicans and Democrats are trying to prove that they—not their opponents across the aisle—have a solid plan for ending income inequality in America.

While President Barack Obama makes a push for extending unemployment benefits and an increase in the minimum wage, conservatives are touting their own solution: marriage.

In a speech commemorating the anniversary of the war on poverty, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, “The truth is, the greatest tool 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 spending program. It’s called marriage.” George W. Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, wrote an op-ed in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal titled, “How to Fight Income Inequality: Get Married.” And on Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker penned, “To Defeat Poverty, Look to Marriage.”

So which party is right?

Regular readers of The Root already know what I have to say about single parenthood. Though it makes people uncomfortable every single time I write about it (and even though my fabulous mom was once a single mother), the data confirms that being raised by a single parent is, on average, worse for children.


That’s not because single parents—often mothers—are bad people. It’s because children are expensive. And at last count, it costs nearly $250,000 to raise a child in America, a number that does not include college costs. That means that raising a child adequately is now a tall order for two people, and a steep, steep uphill climb for one—at least if you want to do it right.

Barely getting by or living paycheck to paycheck may be OK for an adult. But that should not be the type of life into which any of us knowingly brings a child. And unless you are a member of the “1 percent,” if you are single and choose to have a child, if he is not born into poverty he will always be one emergency or one job loss away from poverty. And unless he is a gifted academic or gifted athlete, college will be an impossibility.

We should want more for children than that.

Common sense dictates that two paychecks put together will go further in running a household and raising children than one. That’s why people have roommates. So conservatives are right that marriage can make financial situations better.


But they’re wrong to suggest that marriage alone is enough.

Marriage can play an important role in ending poverty, but only when the two people encouraged to marry are given the necessary tools to succeed. For instance, if low-income couples are not provided with access to low-cost contraception—an issue that’s become a lightning rod among conservatives in the fight over Obamacare—then those couples will simply be married people with large families living in poverty.

All of my great-grandparents were married. But even with two parents, it is tough to support 14 children or eight children, so my grandmothers struggled immensely growing up. They grew up, of course, in a time in which few African Americans were paid equitably or anything close to a living wage. But today many face the same obstacles, and not just in communities of color.


Which is why raising the minimum wage is so important, as is making college affordable, two issues Obama has vowed to prioritize on his agenda this year.

If two people graduate with student-loan debt, can’t find jobs that pay a decent wage and end up working full-time jobs at the current minimum wage, earning $7.25 an hour, they will remain poor, whether or not they formalize their relationship. Any kids they bring into the world will be born into that cycle, and with data showing the U.S. is one of the least upwardly mobile first world nations, their kids are likely to stay there, as are their grandkids.

I’m no math whiz, but even I know that one poor person plus another poor person doesn’t equal middle class. Perhaps conservatives could use a math lesson.


Keli Goff is The Roots special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter