Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Poverty and the Marital Behavior of Young Women

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Poverty and the Marital Behavior of Young Women

Article excerpt

DIANE K. McLAuGHLiN The Pennsylvania State University

DANIEL.L T. LICHTER The Pennsylvania State University*

Marriage provides one route out of poverty and long-term reliance on welfare, yet little is known about the factors that encourage or impede marriage among poor, young women. We use data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to examine first marriage transitions for poor young women and young women who are not poor. We find that the latter are more likely to marry than poor women, but poor women who have jobs are more likely to marry than those who do not have jobs. Poor Black women have the same probability of marriage as poor White women, after controlling for differences in economic independence, mate availability, and family culture and living arrangements. The receipt of welfare was not associated with marriage propensity for either poor women or women who are not poor. Lower mate availability and higher average welfare payments in a local area depressed the probability of marriage among poor women but had no influence on the probability of marriage among women who are not poor.

Key Words: Afr American women, marriage, poverty, welfare.

The rise in extramarital living arrangements and unmarried childbearing has contributed to increases in poverty among women and children. This pattern coincides with the erosion of public support of welfare for poor, single-parent families and raises new questions about the possible unintended consequences of existing welfare programs. Recently passed welfare reform legislation limits the lifetime receipt of welfare and requires poor women to find other means of economic support. Two options are employment and marriage. Recent research suggests that there are many more poor women who will be searching for jobs than there are available jobs (Jensen & Chitose, 1996) and that women who leave welfare for employment are more likely to return to welfare than women who leave welfare for marriage (Harris, 1996). Marriage may be an important way out of chronic poverty and long-term reliance on welfare. Unfortunately, recent studies provide only a limited understanding of the marital experiences of poor women, and even less is known about how economic factors, such as welfare benefits and employment, influence poor women's decisions to marry (Moffitt, 1992). This research addresses that void.

Theoretical models of young women's transitions to marriage provide insights into the marriage process (Lichter, McLaughlin, Kephart, & Landry, 1992; Oppenheimer, 1988; South, 1993) but do not provide explicit hypotheses regarding the likelihood that poor women marry, compared with women who are not poor. Theories of economic independence, the local marriage markets, and cultural theories of marriage timing do not provide a clear picture of poor women's propensity to marry. Economic independence theories suggest that as women's education and earnings increase they will be less reliant on marriage for economic support and that women with greater economic independence will delay marriage. The availability of possible spouses and how that influences marriage timing are the basis for marriage market explanations of marital timing. Areas where there is a greater availability of unmarried men, especially men with high levels of education or good jobs, should encourage women's marriage. Finally, cultural explanations of marriage suggest that family background, attitudes toward women's roles, and beliefs about marriage influence women's decisions to marry. These theories provide mixed evidence of whether poor women are more or less likely to marry than women who are not poor. We examine these theories explicitly to evaluate their applicability to poor women's marital behavior. We empirically assess poor women's relative probability of marriage, and we test which theoretical explanations of marriage timing are best suited to poor women's marriage decisions and the marriage decisions of women who are not poor. …

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