By Nancy Wang

WASHINGTON—Families headed by never married single parents are the least advantaged, the least benefited and the least protected population — and they need help, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution told House subcommittee Wednesday.

“Not only are they much more likely to live in poverty, they also go through all these chaos in their living situations,” said Brookings’ Ron Haskins,who co-directs the Brookings Center on Children. “We need to do something about it.”

Economics and policy experts, testifiying at a House Ways and Means subcommittee, said declining marriage rates and single parenthood are two of the key factors leading to poverty in today’s economy.

The human resources subcommittee plans more hearings to review the current labor market and also the condition low-income Americans who are facing pressure in their day-to-day lives.

“This stress is not just economic stress, but stress on family life as well,” said Charles Boustany of Louisiana, chairman of the subcommittee. “Declining marriage rates, rising shares of children born to single parents, and the increasing number of children spending years raised in single-parent homes adds to that stress and to the hurdles that must be overcome by programs designed to help them.”

Statistics show that among the never married parents, female-headed families struggle the mos, he said. The average employment for never married mothers is below 60 percent while the employment rate for all families was 80 percent in 2013. Poverty rates in female-headed families are four to five times as great as poverty rates in married-couple families, Haskins said.

“If the share of the nation’s children in female-headed families continues to increase as it has been doing for four decades, policies to reduce poverty will be fighting an uphill battle because the rising rates of single-parent families will exert strong upward pressure on the poverty rate,” said Haskins, a former White House and congressional advisor.

In addition, the retreat from marriage—indicated by increases in non-marital childbirths, single parenthood and household instability in the past forty years— inhibits economic mobility, increases poverty and drives up inequality, said W. Bradford Wilcox, visiting scholar at American Enterprise Institute.

“The retreat from marriage is concentrated among lower-income families,” Wilcox said. “This means we are now witnessing a growing marriage divide where well-educated and affluent Americans enjoy comparatively stable, high-quality marriages, whereas other Americans are much less likely to enjoy such marriages.”

The percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 remaining in their first marriages has declined by 25 percent since the 1970s, according to Wilcox’s statement.

Since the subcommittee is still at the beginning of this conversation, no specific solutions were introduced. The experts, however, made some recommendations in their remarks.

“Policymakers should eliminate or reduce marriage penalties embedded in many of the nation’s means-tested welfare policies designed to serve lower-income Americans and their families,” Wilcox said.

Haskins said the current federal programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have benefited many never married mothers, but strong work requirements with rigorous evaluation should be maintained and extended to other programs.