Maria takes up father Sargent's cause [Commentary]

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty, and he put Sargent Shriver in charge of leading the fight.

Since then, by some estimates, we have reduced the number of poor in this country from one in four to about one in six. But more than 46 million Americans continue to live below the poverty line and more than half of them — 25 million — are women and children.

Today Mr. Shriver's daughter, Maria, continues her father's campaign with a new report on women on the cusp of poverty, about whom she writes, "Many of these women feel they are a single incident — one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck — away from the brink."

For this report, titled "A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink," she collected not only economic and polling data, but personal essays from a cavalcade of stars, from Hillary Rodham Clinton, to LeBron James, from Eva Longoria to Sheryl Sandberg. And she delivered her findings last week in a multi-media avalanche and a news show tour.

Women are half the U.S. workforce and primary or co-breadwinner in two-thirds of American families, but they still earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns doing the same job, she reports. And many women who do not work report that they would if there were reliable child care and paid sick days that would allow them to care for their children or their aging parents.

Her report called for responses from both the public and private sector to improve wages, benefits and upward mobility for women along with reliable child-care. It also pointed out that since women make 70 percent of the purchasing decisions and 80 percent of the health care decisions for the family, their financial stability would only benefit the nation's economy and the men and children around them.

The report caused social conservatives to marshal a slightly different version of their trusty call for personal responsibility — that your economic hardships are the result of your mistakes and any government remedy would only further enslave you.

Marriage, they argued. Marriage is the answer.

Kathleen Parker writing in The Washington Post and W. Bradford Wilcox writing in the National Review criticized the report for accepting the reality of the breakdown of the two-parent family and the attendant life-long burdens and limitations on the children.

Mr. Wilcox praised the mission of the report but said that there will be no economic security for women and children until the relationships between men and their families are strengthened.

Ms. Parker described marriage this way: "a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and a permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times."

I don't know about you, but that isn't exactly how I would describe my family life. And it is certainly not the vision many young women have of marriage, and that might explain why so many are willing to have children without a husband.

More than half of births to women under 30 are to unmarried women, and most of those women are white; many are educated and employed. The explanation for this birth may be as simple as the failure of birth control. Women are delaying marriage, but they aren't delaying sex, and babies happen.

But it is also the case that women, who now earn more than half of the college diplomas, don't see the men in their group as particularly reliable partners. More like roommates with baggage.

And for low-income women, the men in the marketplace may be chronically unemployed or in jail. For them, the desire for a child eclipses the wait for a good husband.

Social conservatives believe that the poor should work their way out of poverty, but that requires jobs, jobs that pay more than $7.25 an hour, quality child care, paid sick leave and transportation. All of which are under the purview of government and business.

Personal responsibility has its place. Women and girls have to make better choices about their education, their finances and their personal relationships, as the report recommends.

But I don't think we can simply say to the women in this country, sliding in and out of poverty with their children in tow, that they'd have been better off if they had just gotten married.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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