Reducing the number of children born to single mothers is the most effective way to combat childhood poverty.
That's according to Robert Rector, the Heritage Foundation fellow picked by Gov. Sam Brownback to keynote the first of his administration's three planned meetings on childhood poverty this week.
Rector, an outspoken and popular figure among social conservatives, said a dramatic increase in the number of children born to single mothers since the mid-1960s was “the principle reason that children are poor in your state.”
Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of Kansas children living in households at or below the federal poverty level climbed from 12 percent to 18 percent. In 21 of the state’s 105 counties, more than 20 percent of children live in poverty. The percentage is 26.4 percent in Wyandotte County, which was the site of Monday’s meeting.
Pointing to large charts illuminated on a screen at the front of the room, Rector said births to single mothers in Kansas first exceeded 5 percent in the 1960s and climbed to nearly 38 percent in 2009.
He said it was no coincidence that the beginning of the increase began with President Lyndon Johnson's “War on Poverty” and the growth of what Rector called the “means-tested welfare system.”
“It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the means-tested welfare system (created) to support children in the United States is predominately a support system that compensates for the erosion of marriage,” Rector said.
Encouraging marriage, Rector said, would be the single most effective thing that Kansas policymakers could do to address the problem of childhood poverty.
“Being married drops the probability of poverty by 85 percent,” he said, speaking to about 250 people gathered at a downtown convention center in one of the poorest cities in the state.
In addition to increased childhood poverty, Rector said, the growing tendency of young women to have “serial relationships” resulting in multiple pregnancies by different men had increased the incidence of both childhood poverty and domestic abuse.
Shortly after Rector finished his remarks, Kari Ann Rinker, Kansas coordinator for the National Organization for Women, left the meeting room in anger.
“I was offended in there,” Rinker said. “The things he said, the inferences he made about women and women’s worth were offensive. As I looked around the room, I saw many other people looking to each other in shock and amazement.”
Rinker said the steady increase in births to young, single women was a cause for concern. But she said making available low-cost birth control and improving the women's self-esteem and education would more effectively address the problem.
“The silver bullet is not wedded bliss,” she said.
→ Continue reading and listen to audio from the forum at khi.org/childhoodpoverty.
→ More information here on Wednesday and Thursday's forums, and the planned speakers.