Does Family Matter? Assessing Marriage photo: copyright Paul Toepfer Photography


1. Marriage: A panacea?

2. Good for the old folks?

3. Is bridal sweet?

4. Love for sale?

A single mom reads to her daughter. The child faces longer odds than the daughter of a married couple, but she may do fine: Statistics apply to groups, not individuals. Photo: Sarah Goforth

Encouraging poor, single mothers to marry may not benefit children as much as marriage boosters expect.

Parents have become scarce in many American families. Data: U.S. Census Bureau, cited at Divorce Reform Page

Marriage promotion: Brainstorm, or brain-dead?
If marriage is good for society, and if marriage rates have plunged, shouldn't government get into the marriage-promotion biz? It already has: If you're a single mother and short on cash, West Virginia will pay an extra $100 a month for tying the knot.

A woman holds her child, reads from book. The 1996 welfare reform act said that its aim was to reduce welfare dependency by "promoting job preparation, work, and marriage" and "by encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families."

The feds are putting $300-million a year into various types of marriage promotion and education programs, often to develop skills related to making relationships and resolving conflicts, says Daniel Lichter, an Ohio State University professor of sociology who studies marriage.

Will it work? That's a Big Question , contends Lichter. "We don't know. The states don't have a good record, even any record, in marriage promotion. Government is putting a lot of money into experimental programs, evaluations, and demonstration projects to see what works."

Evaluations that simply track the survival of new marriages could miss the point, Lichter wrote in "Is Marriage a Panacea......" (see bibliography): "...whether marriage affords long-term economic benefits ultimately depends on whether disadvantaged women are able to get married, stay married, and marry well (i.e., marry economically attractive men)."

It's no secret that previous government efforts to change behavior, like smoking and driving drunk, have produced uneven results.

Chart shows children by presence of one or more parents.

"I do" or "adios"?
Lichter, who says he wants to chart a "middle ground" in the debates over marriage, says, "There is no doubt that marriage benefits women," especially low-income women. But he wonders about the real result of encouraging low-income women, especially black women, to "go to school, get a job, marry, and then have a baby."

Having read this far, you might suspect that this sequence of life choices would cut the appalling racial disparity in marriage and poverty, but Lichter has his doubts. Even among black and white women with the same education and record of non-marital births, he says, "black women still have a poverty rate roughly twice that of white women," he says, so marriage promotion may fail to meet a primary objective: cutting welfare costs.

A happily married couple takes a break from a pre-wedding party.A happily married couple takes a break from a pre-wedding party.
Detail of photo by (c)Paul Toepfer Photography

Finally, Lichter says, "Pushing women into bad marriages is not a long-term solution" because it may result in an increase in short-term and/or abusive marriages. When Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, studied more than 2,000 low-income children and mothers, he found that the rate of marriage did increase, but he wrote that "very few of the new marriages involved the fathers of their children. ...While stepfathers bring extra income, they often disturb the family structure. Unfortunately, the research literature shows that children in stepfamilies fare no better than children in single-parent families." Cherlin concluded that "it is hard to support healthy marriages without concurrently supporting unhealthy marriages" (also see "Should the Government..." in the bibliography.

The dispute over disputatious marriages
Indeed, when is a marriage so bad that it harms the kids? Not too long ago, parents justified continuing unhappy marriages because, "we're doing it for the children." In recent years, many parents have flipped that reasoning on its head, justifying divorce because, "a loveless, argumentative marriage would harm the kids."

Obviously, at some level, marital hostility and abuse would justify divorce "for the sake of the children." But some researchers argue that, given the manifold ways that divorce harms kids, persisting a tepid or even conflicted marriage may be good for the kids. For example, Waite cites a study by Paul Amato and Alan Booth, who found that a child's "relations with parents appear to suffer, on average, more when parents divorce than when unhappily married parents stay together" (p. 139, "The Case ..." in the bibliography).

Mural shows elderly black couple in garden.
A Philadelphia mural epitomizes the lasting love of a long marriage.

We'd love to dive into this issue, but feel obliged to return to the wisdom and effectiveness of marriage promotion. Lichter says that if you want to promote marriage, you should start before an unwed woman has a child. "My main shtick is that the best marriage promotion program is one that reduces unwed childbearing, especially among teens," he told us. "Unwed childbearing reduces the likelihood that she will marry and will stay married, and affects the quality of the potential partner, so she is less likely to marry a man who can get her out of welfare dependency."

Lichter thinks today's marriage-promotion efforts are "putting the cart before the horse. There is no doubt that marriage benefits women, but unwed childbearing is a major barrier to a healthy, lasting relationship."

bride and groom surrounded by family
Newlyweds with the bride's family. This happy bunch, with its share of divorces and single parenthood, unmarried and married couples, shows that statistics aren't the whole story. Photo: (c)Paul Toepfer Photography.

Contentious much?
One thing is certain: The current debate about marriage reflects a continuing cultural war. "I get criticism from the left," says Lichter, "mostly about marriage as an oppressive institution that keeps women in their place" or a reluctance to push women into abusive relationships. On the other side, he says, "are the conservative, family-values folks who think that marriage will solve the problems, will take care of these issues, will civilize men so they will become better providers. It's a really divisive debate."

The ultimate political question, Lichter thinks, is whether the failed family is the cause or the effect of social problems. "Conservatives tend to say that the reason we have poverty and social malaise is that the family has gone to hell in a handbasket. Liberals say you are blaming the victim; the problem is located in society, where poverty, etc., have a destabilizing effect on the family."

Rather than disentangle the knot of cause and effect, Lichter says, "I see it as a self-reinforcing problem, there may be structural changes in the economy and culture that are destabilizing marriage, reinforcing inequality and poverty. And that in turn reinforces the retreat from marriage."

Want to get hitched in our marriage bibliography?

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