The Agenda

Oversimplifing the Connection Between Marriage and Poverty

Emily Badger of The Atlantic Cities argues that we ought stop blaming poverty on the decline in marriage. My concern, however, is that she is approaching the issue from the wrong angle:

“All of these marriage-promotion policies were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the link between poverty and marriage,” says Kristi Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University and a research associate at the Council on Contemporary Families. “They’re assuming people are poor because they don’t marry, when I would say there’s much more evidence that it’s poverty that deters people from marriage.”

Fractured family structures don’t cause poverty. Poverty causes these family structures. Reduce poverty through more direct means, and we might actually reverse the retreat of marriage along the way.

“We know marriage has a wide range of benefits, particularly for raising children,” Williams says. “And it’s not unreasonable to think that it would be nice if all children could enjoy these benefits. The problem is that there’s no evidence that the kind of marriages that poor, single parents enter into will have these same benefits.”

In her own research and elsewhere, studies have overwhelmingly found very few benefits to marriage for single mothers and their children. Williams has looked at more than 30 years worth of national data and found almost no physical or mental health benefits to children of single mothers who later married. Another national study found that nearly two-thirds of single mothers who did later marry were divorced by the time they were 35-44. A study of the marriage-promotion programs funded through welfare reform also found few long-term results.

Why would the institution of marriage be so much less beneficial for these families than for higher-income parents and their children? For one thing, the families of low-income single mothers differ from higher-income, two-parent families in so many ways that have nothing to do with marriage. These families must also contend with everything else that comes from (and contributes to) poverty, from higher unemployment and incarceration rates, to lower access to good education and quality jobs.

All of these points are well taken, and I don’t they’re seriously in dispute. The question is whether encouraging young people to avoid non-marital childbearing in the first place is a strategy worth pursuing. Brad Wilcox elaborates:

Scholars have known for a long time that putting marriage after the baby carriage is risky—particularly when the marriage involves a man who is not the baby’s father. Deborah Roempke Graefe (Penn State) and Daniel Lichter (Cornell) pointed out this very fact more than a decade ago, and noted: “When the new husband is not the biological father, the presence of a child may strain economic resources and be a source of conflict (leading, for example, to arguments over visitation rights or resource allocation within the household).” So it’s not news that marriage is no panacea for poor single mothers.

Ironically, this CCF report just confirms that old wisdom recently articulated in the report Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America: namely, men, women, and children are much more likely to enjoy a stable and supportive family life when they sequence marriage before parenthood. As Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution pointed out in their book Creating an Opportunity Society, young adults who put education, work, marriage, and parenthood in the right order—first finishing high school (or college), then getting a job, then marrying, and then having a baby—face very low odds of poverty.

So yes, cajoling impoverished single mothers into marrying men who don’t have particularly bright labor market prospects, and who are not the biological fathers of the children in question, isn’t a recipe for success. One can agree with Williams that marriage promotion initiatives for single parents aren’t likely to succeed while also believing that intervening before young people become parents is an approach that might have greater success. In effect, we are recapitulating the debate over job training programs. According to the “skills beget skills” framework, it is much easier to impart valuable social, emotional, and cognitive skills to children than to adults, which is why job-training programs aimed at adults have had, at best, a mixed record. The “decline in marriage” is really a synecdoche for a wider constellation of issues relating to the ways in which young people think about their future: are they giving due regard to the challenges involved in raising children independently, etc.?


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