Taken the wrong way, a correlation can be a dangerous thing. Consider the relationship between marriage and well-being. There’s much undisputed evidence that married people are, on average, wealthier, healthier and better educated than their single counterparts. Even the novice student of statistics will tell you that association does not mean causation–that being poor, unwell and uneducated is as likely to discourage marriage as the other way around. Nevertheless, the notion that tying the knot can alleviate poverty and bring about positive social change has become the central justification for the Bush Administration’s push for low-income women to get and stay married.
If the Administration is really concerned about poverty and other social problems it claims are caused by divorce and singleness, why not tackle those ills directly? Instead, what the Administration calls the “Healthy Marriage Initiative” is an array of programs that promote the institution in its narrowest sense. While debate has centered on the proposal attached to the stalled welfare bill, which would allot $1.6 billion toward marriage-related projects over the next five years, the federal government has already committed more than $90 million to marriage-related projects since 2001, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. (The funds have been drawn from such diverse–and inappropriate–sources as the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Administration for Native Americans and the Developmental Disabilities Program.)
The Bush marriage strategy can be broken into two parts: efforts to encourage single people to marry and those aimed at keeping married couples together. The theory underlying the first category, which includes pro-marriage media blitzes featuring billboards, posters, calendars and pamphlets as well as premarital classes for high school students, singles and unmarried couples, is that explaining the benefits of marriage will nudge people to the altar. The assumption seems to be that the targets of these campaigns somehow forgot about the institution–or that they don’t know enough to desire it.
But it turns out most low-income people already want to get married. Perhaps the most illuminating insight into why they don’t comes from the Fragile Families study, an ongoing, in-depth investigation of the relationships of more than 3,700 mostly low-income, unmarried couples in twenty US cities that began in 1998. According to these researchers, led by Princeton sociology professor Sara McLanahan, 86 percent of the unmarried mothers and 91 percent of the unmarried fathers who were living together around the time of their child’s birth said they wanted to get married. Yet by the end of the year, only 15 percent of these couples had.
Administration officials seized on these findings, taking them to mean that marriage-education efforts need to reach poor couples during this “magic window” after birth. But inadvertently or not, they missed the key point: Most couples in the study didn’t follow through with their plans to marry because they faced daunting and sometimes insuperable obstacles, such as infidelity and drug abuse.
Poverty also seems to make people feel less entitled to marry. As one father in the survey put it, marriage means “not living from check to check.” Thus, since he was still scraping bottom, he wasn’t ready for it. “There’s an identity associated with marriage that they don’t feel they can achieve,” McLanahan says of her interviewees. (Ironically, romantic ideas about weddings–the limos, cakes and gowns of bridal magazines–seem to stand in the way of marriage in this context. Many in the study said they were holding off until they could afford a big wedding bash.)