It’s time for marriage promotion programs to die.
The first problem is that they don’t actually convince people to get married; nor do they get fathers to spend more time with their children, make children more emotionally secure, encourage parents to stay together or make families more financially stable. The second is that, contrary to right-wing narratives, marriage doesn’t fix poverty – yet those same conservatives demand that the federal government continue to funnel money into failed marriage promotion programs, and even encourage politicians to curb reproductive rights to force couples into marrying. It’s bad policy stacked on bad policy, with women and their children being made the primary victims.
It is true that a stable, two-parent household can be a great place in which to raise a child. Two incomes tend to be better than one, and two people equally invested in a child’s well-being mean double the bodies to take a kid to doctor’s appointments or soccer practice, and double the people who can play, read bedtime stories and really listen to problems. Children in two-parent families (especially with the two biological parents) tend to do better in school and are less likely to live below the poverty line (pdf). So you can see where so many people draw the conclusion that promoting marriage will help to alleviate poverty and protect children.
But here’s the rub: stable marriages – the kind that are most likely to produce successful, socially mobile, healthy children – are disproportionately available to people who are already financially stable and well-educated. Those people are likely to marry later in life, when communication and relationship skills are well-honed, and they’re less likely to experience the kind of profound economic stress that helps to end marriages in lower economic brackets.
They’re also more likely to find marriageable partners and have a reason to delay childbearing until they’re financially stable and emotionally ready. As Dana Goldstein details in this excellent piece, unplanned pregnancy is primarily disastrous for those who have a reason to delay. If there’s little chance of college, a stable career and an upward financial trajectory, why delay childbearing? Marriage to an unsuitable partner, though, may logically be delayed or avoided all together. And when unemployed or chronically under-employed men are a financial burden on the family rather than a contributor, there’s a real incentive to avoid tying the knot.
Marriages in low-income households are also more likely to end in divorce than marriages between two well-educated high-earning partners. That’s not a surprise, given that financial stress is one of the leading causes of marital stress and eventual decline. But divorce is particularly common and particularly damagingfor low-income single moms. According to one study, 64% of low-income single moms who married ended up divorced. And those who divorced were financially worse off than those who never married. In other words, convincing poor single moms to get married may actually cause them more financial harm than if they never married at all.
Marriage initiatives simply don’t deal with the root problems: lack of marriageable men, stressors that break all but the strongest bonds, and the usually correct perception that one has little chance of breaking out of poverty.
Some conservatives, most recently Ross Douthat at the New York Times, have suggested that conservatives should shift positions on subjects like mass incarceration, which leads to a glut of disproportionately working class and of-color men who have difficultly finding decent employment after their release. But he also argues that, in some sort of public policy quid pro quo, liberals agree to restrictions on abortion, birth control and no-fault divorce. In his estimation, those policies make marriage less socially valuable; curtailing them would reinstate marriage to its once-vaunted position.
Look, though, at what happens to marriages in the social classes that have the easiest access to things like birth control, abortion and divorce: their marriages are the most stable. Accessible family planning tools, coupled with a reason to delay childbearing, means that when middle and upper-class women give birth, their child has a series of advantages. It means they give birth alongside a partner they can count on.
By contrast, low-income women already have limited access to abortion and birth control, but their marital outcomes are far worse. Poor women in their 20s are more than three times as likely to experience an unintended pregnancy than high-income women. Education is one of the leading predictors of social mobility, and unplanned pregnancy is one of the main reasons women drop out of school. Getting married doesn’t solve the problem. Access to contraception and information about sexual health, a decent education, and a reasonable hope of moving up in the world, however, makes all the difference.
Marriage can be great for a whole lot of reasons: sharing your life with someone you love, sharing expenses, building a family, having an emotional rock for mutual support through difficult times. But expecting a marriage to pull people out of poverty imbues the marital contract with a power it simply doesn’t have. It’s also an enormous amount of pressure to place on already-vulnerable men. After all, that’s what conservatives mean when they say marriage pulls people out of poverty – they mean that men pull women out of poverty by marrying them. That doesn’t work so well in a modern economy where women work, and where low-income women tend to be more stable and responsible than their male counterparts.
Instead, we should focus on policies that make each individual better situated to share their lives with someone else, out of love and a desire for lifelong commitment rather than financial desperation or in response to a retro stigma on pregnancy out of wedlock. How thoroughly sad is it to hear Republicans, those supposed guard dogs of the importance of marriage, to cast it as a crass economic deal that Americans have to be cajoled or coerced into? How sad is it to argue it’s better to stigmatize birth control use and pregnancy outside of marriage because that might force two people who have little interest in marrying each other for whatever reason – lack of love, a recognition that their union would be unhappy or volatile – actually tie the knot? Marriage-as-punishment isn’t the most romantic ideal.
It’s sad, it’s unromantic, and now studies show that it’s bad pubic policy – the political equivalent of dropping a year’s salary on a shotgun ceremony between two near-strangers who don’t seem to particularly like each other. What more does the GOP need to stop throwing money at the promise of weddings and start investing in the tools that build healthy families and relationships?
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