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Marriage certificate or college degree: What's the best way to escape poverty?

Daily Ticker

There's no dispute that single parent families headed by women are more likely to be poor than two-parent households.

About one in three households headed by a single mother live in poverty compared to one out of 13 two-parent households. That statistic and others have led some conservative commentators like former Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker to declare that marriage is one of the best means to fight poverty and income inequality.

Related: Here's how to win the War on Poverty

In a Wall Street Journal editorial last month, Fleischer cited a Heritage study based on Census data that found, "The U.S. is steadily separating into a two-caste system with marriage and education as the dividing line. In the high-income third of the population, children are raised by married parents with a college education; in the bottom-income third, children are raised by single parents with a high school diploma or less."

And the idea of promoting marriage to fight poverty is not just limited to conservatives, nor is it a new concept. New York Times economics reporter Annie Lowrey points out that "back in the ’90s, Bill Clinton’s welfare overhaul allowed states to spend federal funds on marriage promotion."

Zachary Karabell, head of global strategy at Envestnet (ENV) and author of the new book The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World, tells The Daily Ticker that education is far more important than marriage as a means to escape poverty.

"Marriage is the wrong lens" to use, says Karabell. The difference between poor families and wealthier ones has more to do with education and demographics, says Karabell.

Related: Why you can't "bootstrap" yourself out of poverty

"If you're a college educated woman your unemployment rate is about 4% or less, which means statistically there is no unemployment issue for a college-educated woman .... If you are a male without a high school diploma, you have an unemployment rate pushing 20%."  Those statistics on education and employment are "a much more meaningful reality than whether or not you're in this institution called marriage," says Karabell.

Thus, ending poverty is much complicated than promoting marriage.

"Many poor women opt not to marry the poor men in their lives, for instance to avoid bringing more economic chaos into their homes," writes New York Times economics reporter Annie Lowrey. "Creating good jobs with growing wages at the bottom of the income scale might be the best, if hardest, way to encourage young couples to wed."

Related: Income inequality explosion: Top 85 = Bottom 3.5 billion

In other words, ending poverty promotes marriage, rather than the other way around.

And there are disincentives for married women to work. A study by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution found that a low-income couple would keep only about 30% of a wife's earnings after factoring in the loss of the earned income tax credit -- and that's not even calculating the high cost of child care.

So one policy response would be reducing those disincentives and, as Jared Bernstein, former chief economist for Vice President Biden, suggests, "investing in poor children, regardless of the marital status of their parents."

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