Contra Santorum: Most Adults in Poverty Marry and Have High School Diplomas

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Thursday, 30 August 2012 13:00

In his RNC speech last night, Rick Santorum claimed that the U.S. poverty rate would be close to zero if all of us here in the land of the free just did three simple things: (1) worked full-time, year-round (for every year of our entire working life); (2) graduated from high school (regardless of the quality of that education), and (3) got married (regardless of the quality of that marriage).

Absent massive government investments in publicly subsidized jobs combined with a federal mandate that Americans never get sick or disabled, it is hard to imagine how Santorum's simple thing number 1 is achievable. (And, if we let Americans in Charles Murray's "lower tribe" have children, then we need big new investments in child care—Santorum, I know is a big fan of the former, to the point of making childbearing mandatory after conception, but not so much the latter.)

So let's just focus on the other two: finishing high school and universal marriage. A quick glance at the educational and marital demographics of poverty are all it takes to dismiss Santorum's arguments here.

First, marriage. As the table below shows, nearly two-thirds of working-age adults (25-64, the same age range used by Santorum) with incomes below the meagre federal poverty line either are currently married or have been married. Over one-in-three are currently married and not separated. So marriage is clearly no panacea.  

Working-Age Adults (25-64) with Below-Poverty Income by Marital Status, 2010

Currently or Previously Married 64.3%
Breakout:
  -Currently Married 34.7%
  -Currently Married but Separated 6.8%
  -Divorced or Widowed 22.8%
Never Married 35.7%

Second, finishing high school. As the table below shows, the vast majority of adults with below-poverty incomes finished high school, and more than one in three have education beyond that. Some 2.3 million working-age adults with college degrees had below-poverty incomes in 2010. 

Working-Age Adults (25-64) with Below-Poverty Income by Educational Attainment, 2010

High School Grad or Higher 70%
Breakout:  
High School Grad Only 36%
HS plus Some College 23%
Bachelor's or Higher 12%
No High School Diploma 30%

Millions of married Americans with high school diplomas and beyond live below the poverty line today. Scolds like Santorum deny this reality and blame individual Americans for their economic struggles because they don't want to acknowledge that the real responsibility lies with failed conservative economic policies, and the incredible economic mismanagement of, among others, Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Ben Bernanke.

Tags: education | marriage | poverty | Santorum | working class