What's (Not) Wrong with Low-Income Marriages

By Trail, Thomas E.; Karney, Benjamin R. | Journal of Marriage and Family, June 2012 | Go to article overview
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What's (Not) Wrong with Low-Income Marriages

Trail, Thomas E., Karney, Benjamin R., Journal of Marriage and Family

In the United States, low marriage rates and high divorce rates among the poor have led policymakers to target this group for skills-and values-based interventions. The current research evaluated the assumptions underlying these interventions; specifically, the authors examined whether low-income respondents held less traditional values toward marriage, had unrealistic standards for marriage, and had more problems managing relational problems than higher income respondents. They assessed these issues in a stratified random sample that oversampled low-income and non-White populations (N = 6,012). The results demonstrated that, relative to higher income respondents, lowincome respondents held more traditional values toward marriage, had similar romantic standards for marriage, and experienced similar skills-based relationship problems. Low-income groups had higher economic standards for marriage and experienced more problems related to economic and social issues (e.g., money, drinking/drug use) than did higher income respondents. Thus, efforts to save low-income marriages should directly confront the economic and social realities these couples face.

Key Words: family policy, low-income families, socioeconomic status, welfare reform.

Because divorce rates are higher and marriage rates are declining faster in lower income communities than in more affluent communities (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Pew Research Center, 2010), many politicians, advocacy groups, and researchers are concerned about the state of low-income marriages. Over the past 15 years, these concerns have fueled government efforts to strengthen marriages through federally funded marital enhancement programs targeting primarily low-income couples (Ooms, Bouchet, & Parke, 2004). Guiding the design of these programs are assumptions about why the institution of marriage appears so fragile in this population. For example, public education programs touting the benefits of marriage assume that there is something wrong with how low-income groups view marriage: that they lack traditional, family-oriented values or that their standards for relationships are unrealistic. Programs offering training in relationship skills imply that lowincome couples have more difficulty managing relationship issues than more affluent couples. Yet, despite the millions of dollars already spent on these programs, the support for the assumptions underlying them have received only minimal empirical scrutiny. Very little is known about how the most likely recipients of federal marriage promotion programs actually perceive and experience marriage, and what is known is based on limited populations (e.g., low-income single mothers) and surveys that do not specifically sample by race and income.


The goal of the current article is to evaluate current theories about how low-income populations view and experience marriage, with an eye toward how this evaluation might inform policy initiatives to strengthen marriage within low-income communities. Toward this end, the rest of this introduction is divided into three sections. In the first section, we review the existing literature on traditional family values, noting the limits of this literature for making statements about low-income populations. Next, we examine two alternative explanations for what is wrong with low-income marriages, noting that even if low-income populations value marriage as much as more affluent groups, they may have more unrealistic standards for marriage, or they may have more problems once they get married. We end this introduction with a third section in which we provide an overview of the current study, which was designed to evaluate each of these possibilities through analyses of survey data from a stratified random sample that oversampled low-income and non-White populations.

Do Lower Income Groups Value Marriage Less?

The assumption that low-income people do not value marriage as an institution has motivated federal programs to promote the value of marriage among the poor (Small, Harding, & Lamont, 2010).

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What's (Not) Wrong with Low-Income Marriages


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