- Policy & Research
- About KHI
Nov. 14, 2011
KANSAS CITY, Kan. 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.
Rinker also took issue with Brownback, who had opened the meeting by saying that bipartisan strategies would be needed to address a problem as big as childhood poverty.
“The best way to do that," the governor said, "is to reach as far as you can across the political spectrum and find somebody as far opposite and different from you as you can and start to talk about strategies and specifics."
Rinker said she thought the governor’s remarks rang hollow after she listened to Rector.
“For them to begin this presentation with a statement that this issue is above political party and then to have a national speaker that has an extreme, right-wing political agenda that knows nothing about the issue within our state is ridiculous,” Rinker said.
At one point, Beverly Darby, a black woman and self-described community activist, interrupted Rector and charged him with making racist comments.
“We need to try to figure out what we’re going to do about the poverty, not how we’re going to tell people to live their lives,” Darby said to applause.
Rector responded that poverty isn’t a racial issue. But he added that children being born outside of marriage is a significant problem in the black community.
“I would also say to you with my heart that when Pearl Harbor was bombed (1941) over 9 out of 10 black children in the United States were born to married couples,” Rector said. “So, the erosion of marriage among blacks, which is one part of this issue but only a part of it, is something that’s occurred fairly recently and predominantly from the 1960s on.”
Others still hopeful
Barry Feaker, executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission, also was one of the featured forum speakers.
He said he remained hopeful that the forums could help produce a way forward. The other forums are scheduled for later this week in Wichita and Garden City. Rector also is scheduled to speak at the Wichita event.
Feaker said the administration’s efforts to encourage marriage and new restrictions on welfare shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. But he said advocates for the poor also should continue to question the administration's policies.
“If that safety net wasn’t there our numbers would be off the charts,” Feaker said. “We need to make sure that any changes that are made in the system are not overlooked and we have an unintended consequence. We’ve got enough people standing outside the door of the rescue mission trying to get in every night. I don’t want to see that grow any more.”
Participants spent the last 90 minutes of the meeting participating in small-group discussions at their tables. Organizers said ideas generated by those discussions will be included in a final report that the Brownback administration may use to craft a proposal to address childhood poverty. Videos of the speakers at Monday’s meeting will be available through the website of Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services at srs.ks.gov.
→ New welfare restrictions questioned