(March 2004) President Bush's $1.5 billion proposal to promote marriage, especially among low-income couples, is likely to have mixed results at best, according to Daniel Lichter, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University and editor of the journal Demography.
The proposal would provide at least $1.5 billion for training to help couples develop skills that sustain marriages, including unmarried couples who have had a child together.
In a study published recently in the journal Social Problems, Lichter and colleagues Deborah Graefe and J. Brian Brown found that preventing unwed childbearing may be more important than promoting marriage in keeping women and children out of poverty.
“Marriage alone is no panacea for women who had children before they got married,” Lichter said. “Marriage cannot offset the economic disadvantages associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing.”
Findings of his study showed that about 30 percent of women who had an unwed birth are now poor, compared with only 8 percent of women who had a birth after marriage and 5 percent of married women who were childless.
Women who had children before marriage are less likely ever to get married; when they do marry, they are less likely to stay married and less likely to marry a man with good economic prospects, Lichter said.
The analysis did confirm that getting married and staying married is linked to economic advantages for unwed mothers, much as it is for all women. But a marriage that later ends in divorce can actually compound the disadvantage for unwed mothers, the researchers found. These women had higher rates of poverty than did otherwise similar women who never married.
Lichter also reported that 40 percent of unwed births occur to cohabiting couples.
“Many cohabiting women do not cement their relationships by marrying the fathers of their children,” he said. “And for those marriages begun as cohabitation, a higher-than-average share are unsuccessful and end in divorce. Encouraging poor women to enter marriage is not likely to be successful in the long run unless they also are supported with counseling and economic help while married.”
Economics may be one reason cohabiting relationships are often unstable: Incomes of cohabiting couples tend to be much lower than among married couples. Choosing cohabitation instead of marriage seems to be a response to economic uncertainty, he said.
The study suggests that “if marriage is a public policy goal, then government and other groups must pay attention to reducing unwed childbearing and improving the income-earning prospects of low-income couples,” he said.
“The focus on marriage promotion should not distract policymakers from addressing the other conditions that breed poverty and other social problems — too little education, too few good jobs, poor mental health, and problems of substance abuse.”
The administration's marriage promotion proposal — which is part of the welfare re-authorization bill — is likely to include advertising campaigns to publicize the “value of marriage.” Much of the money, however, will be devoted to marriage education and counseling, along with evaluation research that helps identify successful programs.
In another study, Lichter and colleagues found that the overwhelming majority of unmarried women, including low-income and single mothers, would “like to marry at some time in the future.” But they found that only 20 percent of all single women who expressed a desire for marriage married within four years. These findings are based on nationally representative data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1994–1998).
“Disadvantaged mothers do not need to be convinced about the value of marriage,” he noted. “The more pertinent issue is identifying and eliminating specific barriers that prevent women from realizing their desire for marriage.”
Parenting responsibilities, low income and education, and lack of access to ”marriageable men” are often barriers to forming healthy relationships that lead to marriage, he noted.
The findings suggest that low-income women are aware of the obstacles they face. The researchers found that despite high desires for marriage, single mothers were somewhat less likely than other single women to report they “expect to marry in the future.” Racial minority women — regardless of their social or economic circumstances — were also somewhat less likely to expect or desire to marry than other women.
“Low-income women have the same aspirations for a stable marriage and happy family life as middle-class women,” Lichter said. “The stereotype that they somehow lack the right family values or that they are against marriage simply is not supported by the evidence.”
Jeff Grabmeier is assistant director of research communications at Ohio State University. Paola Scommegna is a freelance writer.
- Daniel T. Lichter, Deborah Roempke Graefe, and J. Brian Brown, “Is Marriage a Panacea? Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Unwed Mothers,” Social Problems 50, no. 1 (2003): 60-86.
- Daniel T. Lichter, Christie D. Batson, and J. Brian Brown, “Welfare Reform and Marriage Promotion: The Marital Expectations and Desires of Single and Cohabiting Mothers,” Forthcoming Social Service Review 78, no. 1 (2004).