Academic journal article The Future of Children

Why Don't They Just Get Married? Barriers to Marriage among the Disadvantaged

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Why Don't They Just Get Married? Barriers to Marriage among the Disadvantaged

Article excerpt

Summary

Kathryn Edin and Joanna Reed review recent research on social and economic barriers to marriage among the poor and discuss the efficacy of efforts by federal and state policymakers to promote marriage among poor unmarried couples, especially those with children, in light of these findings.

Social barriers include marital aspirations and expectations, norms about childbearing, financial standards for marriage, the quality of relationships, an aversion to divorce, and children by other partners. Edin and Reed note that disadvantaged men and women highly value marriage but believe they are currently unable to meet the high standards of relationship quality and financial stability they believe are necessary to sustain a marriage and avoid divorce. Despite their regard for marriage, however, poor Americans do not view it as a prerequisite for childbearing, and it is typical for either or both parents in an unmarried-couple family to have a child by another partner. Economic barriers include men's low earnings, women's earnings, and the marriage tax.

In view of these findings, Edin and Reed argue that public campaigns to convince poor Americans of the value of marriage are preaching to the choir. Instead, campaigns should emphasize the benefits for children of living with both biological parents and stress the harmful effects for children of high-conflict parental relationships. Programs to improve relationship quality must address head-on the significant problems many couple face. Because disadvantaged men and women view some degree of financial stability as a prerequisite for marriage, policymakers must address the instability and low pay of the jobs they typically hold as well as devise ways to promote homeownership and other asset development to encourage marriage. Moreover, programs need to help couples meet the challenges of parenting families where children are some combination of his, hers, and theirs. Encouraging more low-income couples to marry without giving them tools to help their marriages thrive may simply increase the divorce rate.

Half a century ago, Americans, whether poor or well-to-do, all married at roughly the same rate. But by the mid-1980s, poor women were only about three-quarters as likely to marry as women who were not poor. And marriage rates among the disadvantaged have continued to decline. (1) Today, poor men and women are only about half as likely to be married as those with incomes at three or more times the poverty level. (2)

For those concerned with child well-being, the most worrisome aspect of the decline in marriage among the poor is the increase in nonmarital childbearing. Though the share of first births within marriage has fallen dramatically for the nation as a whole--down from more than 90 percent in the 1940s to only about 60 percent today--nearly a third of poor women aged twenty-five or older have had a child outside marriage, compared with only 5 percent of women who are not poor. (3)

In an attempt to promote marriage among poor unmarried couples who are expecting a baby, federal and state policymakers are offering an extensive array of services around the time of the baby's birth--which many regard as a "magic moment" within these relationships. State and local agencies are recruiting expectant or new unmarried parents into innovative programs to improve their relationship skills, adapting curriculums traditionally used to improve the relationships of middle-class married couples. By teaching such skills to these unwed couples, most of whom are poor and minority, policymakers hope both to boost their marriage rates and to make their marriages last.

Many observers, however, are skeptical that these new programs, which have not been evaluated scientifically, will do much to restore marriage, especially healthy and enduring marriage, among the poor. They question whether these programs can effectively address the realities--both social and economic--that keep poor couples from getting married. …

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