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


Mark Gordon - published on 07/17/14 - updated on 06/07/17

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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