Speaker discusses marriage, motherhood in poor communities


By Damon Krane
March 2006
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)


The dramatic increase of children born to low income single mothers was the focus of a February 23rd presentation at Scripps Auditorium by visiting sociologist Kathryn Edin. Edin is author of the books Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work and most recently, with Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.

Edin’s second book reports the findings of a team of researchers led by Edin and Kefalas, who for 5 years lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while interviewing a multi-racial group of 162 low-income single mothers about their perceptions of children and marriage.

According to the US Census Bureau, the number of families with children headed by a single mother has doubled over the last 30 years, to the point where these families make up one third of all families in the US. In 2003, the poverty rate for children living in married households was 8.4 percent, compared to a staggering 38.4 Percent for children living in single-mother households.

Increasing the number of married families has been a stated goal of “welfare reform,” the major restructuring of the US welfare system that began in 1996. Though this process began during the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration has increased the focus on marriage, proposing to spend $1.5 million dollars on marriage promotion over the next five years. “You could say marriage is the Bush anti-poverty program,” remarked Edin. But thus far, welfare reform has failed to reverse the decline in marriage.

Edin argues this is largely because none of the theories behind this policy hold much weight. Those who have blamed public assistance for damaging marriage by decreasing women’s economic dependence on men fail to recognize that marriage has continued to decline among the poor even as welfare benefits have been dramatically decreased since the 1970s. Furthermore, Edin said the research shows that low-income women are more
likely -rather than less- to marry as their earnings increase. While there is some correlation between the marriage decline and the enormous drop in the earnings of blue collar men in the US over the last 30 years, Edin argues that this too fails to account for
an even more dramatic decline in marriage among the poor.

In contrast to these theories, Edin concludes that the increase in out-of-wedlock births is due to the way in which the poor have responded to a rising standard for marriage.

The women Edin interviewed vehemently rejected the patriarchal marriages endured by previous generations, saying that marriage should instead be a partnership between equals, entered into only after the relationship had withstood the test of time. Because these women feel it is dangerous -for both women and children-for a woman to be economically dependent on a man, they believe that women should not get married until both partners are financially secure. Indeed, within the communities Edin’s team surveyed, a respectable marriage occurs through a public ceremony held at the couple’s expense. This ceremony signifies the higher status which the couple has achieved before the community. In contrast, couples that did not marry this way tended to be looked down

“Marriage is more of a consumption item than a social necessity,” said Edin. “When you no longer have to marry to be a social person, you can be more choosey. But these women still do value marriage.”

According to Edin, the standard for marriage has also been rising among affluent women. The problem is that this heightened standard is much harder for poor women to achieve. Many of the women Edin interviewed stated that if they waited until marriage
to have children, they would probably be too old by then. Thus despite having similar expectations for marriage, Edin said, “Where the rich and poor diverge is in the conditions under which they’ll have children and the value they ascribe to them.”

Whereas young, affluent women can gain a sense of identity and meaning from careers, education and material consumption, Edin said poor women have fewer options besides the traditional role of motherhood. Lacking thse opportunities to begin with, poorer women pay a smaller price for having children at a young age than do their more fortunate counterparts. Thus motherhood is held in extremely high regard in poorer communities – to the point where Edin said poor women are 5 times more likely than their affluent peers to believe that people without children lead empty lives. Abortion is generally considered unacceptable even among the women interviewed by Edin’s team who were not religious. Meanwhile, the extended families and multi-generational households, often of economic necessity to the poor, mean that poor women tend to gain significant experience with childcare at a relatively early age.

While the financial stability and emotional commitment that marriage now seems to require appears out of reach to these women, they are already confident in their ability to care for children. The result, Edin argues, is that poor women are less likely to consciously avoid pregnancy, and more likely to “deal with it.” Furthermore, they expect less of a man with whom they are willing to have children than they do of a husband.

“In the absence of economic opportunities, people will keep having children because that’s all they can have,” said Edin. To underscore the point, she quoted an aspiring low-income father who said he wanted a child because “I just need some evidence that I was on the planet.”

While pregnancy did not mean a couple would immediately marry, Edin’s study found that many new parents still planned to marry in the future. “At the time the mothers gave birth,” said Edin, “80 percent of the women were still romantically involved with their babies’ fathers; 50 percent were continuing to cohabitate with the men; and 60 percent said they believed chances were good that marriage was in the future, but that it was 3, 4 or 5 years away.” When Edin’s team checked in with these same women 3 years later, roughly half had broken up with their children’s fathers, but 15 percent has married and 40 percent were still together and planning to be married in the future.

“The first lesson for the bush Administration is that you can’t have a war on poverty just with marriage promotion,” concluded Edin. “The poor already take marriage seriously. They’ll tell you that the reason they’re not married is because they’re poor. That makes it harder for them to develop relationships which are stable and secure enough to meet their expectations of a healthy marriage-one that won’t end in divorce or put their children at
risk to the behavior of abusive men.”

Elaborating further on this point in a recent interview with PBS’s Frontline, Edin said, “People who can’t make ends meet from month to month, who are frequently unemployed, who then might find they have to make all kinds of choices they don’t want to make, like going on welfare or taking an illegal job-these experiences are very stressful for adults. Adults then begin to behave in ways that can make the relationship very destructive for both themselves and their children… As income inequality has grown since the 1970s, as people’s income trajectories are less and less sure, and their piece of the American Dream seems more and more elusive, I think it’s just very hard to sustain any hope of marriage.”

Edin acknowledged that she is often accused of promoting marriage herself. Indeed she told Frontline, “I think the social science is overwhelming in terms of marriage being good for children. It is the best environment for ensuring investments to children that we’ve invented as human beings.” However, Edin told her audience at OU, “I think we would all agree that middle class people do not have the right to dictate the decisions of poor people.” Edin said she is not so much pushing marriage as she ia arguing that poor people deserve the same access to the same support services – therapy, marriage counseling, etc. – that affluent couples can afford to buy on their own.

“The key is to help couples who want to marry anyway to sustain positive marital relationships that last… In order to do that. we need to rethink: Who really has access to a piece of the pie? Are we offering enough opportunity for young couples, prior to
having children, to actually achieve the things that they think they have to achieve in order to sustain a marriage that could be a healthy environment for a child?”

Increasingly healthy, lasting marriages requires policy changes that increase poor people’s access to upward social mobility, Edin said. “No marriage promotion program in any state currently has an economic component,” she added.

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