Husbands or birth control: which pulls women out of poverty?

Nicole M. King
6 August 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - Marriage promotion has failed to stem poverty among single moms

Given that there is a significant correlation between poverty and single-mother families, one might think that reducing poverty is a matter of simply increasing marriage rates among the poor. However, a recent article in Phys.Org argues that this approach has not proved successful, for "research shows that single mothers living in impoverished neighborhoods are likely to marry men who won't help them get out of poverty. These men are likely to have children from other partnerships, lack a high school diploma, and have been incarcerated or have substance abuse problems." Marriage - when it is to a successful and dependable husband - can protect a mother and child from poverty. But, marriage, in general, might not be able to produce such desired effects.

Yet, the conclusion that Phys.Org ends with is that while we should not bother promoting marriage (which - as research indicates - might be a worthwhile conclusion, given the poor already acknowledge the desirability of this institution), "the government should [rather] focus on preventing unintended births…[for] having a child outside of marriage is associated with negative mental health outcomes among African American women only when the birth was unexpected." This, however, seems like a strange conclusion to draw. If marriage - when men are educated and successful - helps prevent poverty, should not the strategies involve the promotion of education, employment, and a decrease in crime among low-income men? Alas, the liberal zeitgeist when facing any problem almost always invokes "early sex education and expansive and affordable access to birth control and family planning services."

Additionally, recent research indicates that the poor's view of marriage is no more impoverished than the affluent, and that levels of conflict are no higher in low-income couples than in high-income couples.

The New Research - Do low-income Americans need marriage education?

When he launched his healthy-marriage initiative, former President George W. Bush directed the same federal bureaucrats who run the welfare state to administer this multi-million-dollar grant program. The president's administrative strategy implied that the crisis of marriage in America is largely a problem of the nation's poor. To be sure, low-income and working-class Americans suffer more family breakdown than the upper-middle class. But a study by psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that the reason for the retreat from marriage among the poor is not that they don't value wedlock or that they lack "relationship" skills, deficiencies that the Bush administration believed government-funded marriage education would correct.

Researchers, Thomas Trail and Benjamin Karney, found that, like those with moderate and high incomes, survey participants agreed that a happy marriage is "one of the most important things in life" and that parents "ought to be married." Low-income respondents were also similar to more affluent respondents in their view of the kinds of benefits marriage can deliver. However, they hoped for more economic benefits and fewer emotional and sexual benefits than did high-income respondents.

What is more, the researchers found no significant differences between low-income couples and high-income couples in reported levels of personal conflict stemming from issues with parenting, communication, sex, household chores, or in-laws. (The researchers did, however, find that low-income couples were more vulnerable than high-income couples to money problems and substance abuse.)

In contrast to the high-income respondents, lower-income respondents were socially conservative in their attitudes. Both low- and moderate-income respondents expressed more traditional views regarding premarital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage; the low-income set even felt more strongly that couples should be of the same race or ethnicity. And expressing views certainly to confound adversarial feminists, lower-income Americans affirmed more conventional gender roles, believing that "the man of the house should make important decisions" and that it is "better for a family if the man earns a living and the woman takes care of the home."

Likewise, low-income respondents were less accepting than were affluent couples of divorce, believing that divorce reflects poorly on a couple. And they were less likely to agree that dissolving a marriage is "a reasonable solution to an unhappy marriage" but more apt to agree that parents who no longer love each other should stay married for the sake of the children.

Reflecting upon these findings, the California researchers claim: "The culture of marriage is just as strong among low-income populations as it is among those with higher incomes."