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Babies Now, Marriage Later: A Failed Strategy for the Poor

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Mark Gordon - published on 07/17/14

New Harvard study confirms what most Americans know but would rather not acknowledge.

A recently released study of social mobility conducted by researchers at Harvard University confirms what most Americans know but would rather not acknowledge: the children of single-parent households are more likely to be poor and less likely to move into the middle or upper classes during their lifetimes than the children of two-parent homes.  

The study, titled “Where is the Land of Opportunity: The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” examines the geographical distribution of social mobility, controlling for five factors: racial segregation, income inequality, school quality, social capital, and family structure. According to the authors, “the fraction of children living in single-parent households is the single strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored.” In other words without regard to geographical location, whether a child is the product of a single-parent home makes more difference to his or her eventual material success than any other factor.

Moreover, “family structure correlates with upward mobility not just at the individual level but also at the community level, perhaps because the stability of the social environment affects children’s outcomes more broadly.” Here the researchers are saying that children of single-parent homes tend to inhabit local cultures of fatherlessness, which makes their negative outcomes a community phenomenon, not just an individual one.

Overall, the study found that social mobility is lowest in the states of the Old South, which not coincidentally is where the highest rates of single-parent families are generally found. Other areas have high percentages of single-parent families, of course, notably major cities; but in regions outside the Old South factors like better quality schools and a greater degree of social capital – private and public services – tend to blunt the effect of single-parenthood on social mobility.  

As Kevin Hartnett recently wrote in Harvard Magazine, “The decoupling of marriage from childbearing among lower-income Americans is arguably the most profound social trend in American life today.” Indeed, 37% of families headed by single females are in poverty, as compared to only 6.8% of families headed by an intact married couple. Factor in education, and the correlation between poverty and single parenting becomes plainer: 92% of college-educated women bear their first child in wedlock while 60% of women with a high school diploma or less bear their first child while unmarried.

One of the results of these trends is that poverty in the United States is becoming increasingly feminized. According to statistics compiled by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), women experience higher rates of poverty across the board than do men. “In 2012, over five million more women than men were living below the poverty line,” according to the NCLEJ, “and two million more women than men were living in deep poverty. For women aged 18 to 64, the poverty rate was 15.4%, compared to 11.9% for men of the same age range. At 11%, the poverty rate for women aged 65 and older is almost double that of men aged 65 and older—6.6%.”

That the decline of marriage has had a direct bearing on the feminization of poverty is practically irrefutable, especially considering that in 1973 the disparity between men and women in poverty was negligible.

What these numbers suggest is that marriage is all but dead among the lower and lower middle classes in the United States. The key question, though, is why? A study conducted by UCLA in 2012 found that poor and lower middle class people actually had a
higher view of the value of traditional marriage than their counterparts among wealthier classes. For instance, they were more likely than other groups to agree with statements such as “When there are children in the family, parents should stay married even if they no longer love each other,” and “It’s better for a family if the man earns a living and the woman takes care of the family."

These results seem to contradict the notion that culture is predominant in the marital calculations of low-income people. According to Benjamin Karney, a UCLA psychology professor who co-authored the study, "It’s not because they don’t care about marriage. They care about marriage so much that they are unwilling to do it the wrong way. In their communities, motherhood and marriage are two separate things.”

Johns Hopkins Professor Kathryn Edin, author of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, agrees. “What’s interesting and intriguing and complicated,” she says, “is the criteria they have for marriage, because the bar for marriage that we found is very high. Marriage isn’t something you do now, and then you and she work together as a couple, or to achieve your dream, the way it maybe was for our parents. Marriage is the finish line. It’s the frosting on the cake; it’s graduation, once you’ve achieved financial stability and you have some of the accoutrements of middle-class success, like maybe a mortgage and two working cars, and maybe some money in the bank, and you’ve really put your relationship through the test of time.”

If Karney and Edin are right, practical economics is a much more likely culprit for the demise of marriage among lower income people than government welfare policies or the influence of Hollywood. In any case, the backwards “babies now/marriage later” strategy of many poor women has been an unmitigated disaster, for them and for society at large. Regardless of how traditional their view of marriage, poor women who have babies out of wedlock tend to stay poor, and, tragically, their children tend to stay that way, as well.

Of course, all of this was anticipated by Catholic Social Teaching, which places marriage and the family at the center of society, including the economy. According to the bishops of the United States, “policies on taxes, work, divorce, immigration, and welfare should help families stay together.” The bishops have also called for just wages that allow families to stay together, and public assistance programs that can meet the needs of struggling families. We’ve known for a long time that conflict over finances is the leading cause of divorce in the United States. Turns out, it may also be the leading driver for people who never get married in the first place.

Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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