Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

High Hopes but Even Higher Expectations: The Retreat from Marriage among Low-Income Couples

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

High Hopes but Even Higher Expectations: The Retreat from Marriage among Low-Income Couples

Article excerpt

This study examines why low-income, unmarried parents who say that they plan to marry at the time their child is born do not follow through on their plans. We use data from a nationally representative birth cohort survey-the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 3,710)-combined with data from an embedded qualitative study-Time, Love, Cash, Caring, and Children (n = 47)-to explore the reasons behind this apparent discrepancy. We find that some of the difference between parents' expectations and behavior may be because of the overstatement of intentions at the time of the birth. Most of the discrepancy, however, results from parents' perceived social and economic barriers to marriage. Specifically, unmarried parents have a long list of financial and relationship prerequisites they believe must be met in order for them to wed. Combined with other factors, these standards lead to an indeterminate delay in marriage.

Key Words: cohabitation, low-income, marriage, parents.

The form of the American family has changed dramatically over the past half century. Marriage rates have slowly but steadily decreased, first-time brides and grooms are getting older, and nearly one third of children are now born outside of marriage (Goldstein & Kenney, 2001; Raley, 2000; Ventura & Bachrach, 2000). At the same time, norms regarding sex, fertility, and acceptable types of romantic unions have also shifted. Activities once regarded as proper only within the context of marriage-sexual activity, childrearing, and sharing a home-are increasingly acceptable outside a legal union (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001).

Interestingly, these changes do not seem to have diminished the value most people ascribe to marriage. As was true 30 years ago, the majority of Americans still believe that people who marry are happier than people who are single (Axinn & Thornton, 2000). Furthermore, almost 8 of 10 Americans say that being married and having a family is very important to them (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001), and the majority expect to marry eventually (Lichter, Batson, & Brown, 2004; Mauldon, London, Fein, Patterson, & Bliss, 2002). Goldstein and Kenney (2001) estimate that these expectations are usually fulfilled, as 90% of women born between 1961 and 1965 have or will wed.

These overall patterns, however, obscure a marked difference in marital behavior by ethnicity and social class. Whereas lifetime marriage rates have declined by 5% for U.S. women as a whole, they have declined by 25% for African Americans and 30% for women without a high school diploma (Goldstein & Kenney, 2001). Furthermore, although most women with a nonmarital birth still marry eventually, African Americans (who are disproportionately likely to be poor) are 25% less likely than Whites to do so by age 40 (Graefe & Lichter, 2002). Thus, even though marriage is still the norm, its prevalence and timing differ significantly by race, ethnicity, and class.

This variation in marital behavior by demographic subgroup is puzzling because researchers find strong support for marriage across the sociodemographic spectrum (Brown, 2000; Lichter et al., 2004; Mauldon et al., 2002; Tucker, 2000). Recent data from a large national study of new unwed parents, a very disadvantaged group, confirm the importance of marriage even among those least likely to wed. Of the 3,700 unmarried mothers surveyed-85% of whom were non-White and 70% of whom had household incomes less than 200% of the poverty line-more than 8 out of 10 were romantically involved with the father of their child and slightly less than half were cohabiting (McLanahan et al., 2003). Furthermore, the vast majority of romantically involved couples reported that their chances of marriage were good or almost certain (Waller & McLanahan, 2004). Yet, despite this promarriage ethos, only a small proportion of couples (15%) had actually married by their child's first birthday, and a larger proportion (21%) had broken up (Carlson, McLanahan, & England, 2004). …

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