Low-Income Women: Get Married

Poor women should be encouraged to marry as a route out of poverty and away from other social and economic problems. Pro or con?

Pro: Encouraging Marriage Helps Everyone

Higher marriage rates among the poor would benefit poor adults themselves, their children, and the nation. Although I do not support coercive policies to achieve higher marriage rates, I do favor marriage promotion programs conducted by community-based organizations such as churches and other nonprofit civic groups. The activities these groups should sponsor include counseling, marriage education, job assistance, parenting, anger control, avoiding domestic violence, and money management.

There is no dispute that marriage has declined more among the poor and minorities than among the middle class—and that nonmarital births, now the major cause of single-parent families, are rampant among minority groups. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, children living in single-parent families are about five times as likely to live in poverty. There’s also a high probability they’ll drop out of school, get arrested, be involved in teen pregnancy themselves, have more mental health problems, and be less likely to be employed or in school as young adults. Indeed, parents themselves are physically and psychologically better off when married than single.

Research shows that around 80% of couples who have babies outside marriage say they are in love and most of them believe that there’s a good chance they will get married some day, according to a 2005 report published in Mathematica Policy Research. So if both the children and adults are better off and if the couples say they hope to be married one day, why not help them? As long as the programs are not coercive and are delivered by community-based agencies, what’s the problem? If we can learn how to help couples who want to marry, the payoff to them, their children, and society is potentially enormous.

Con: An Emphasis on Marriage Misses the Point

Marriage promotion policies will not solve the poverty problem. While financial incentives or relationship-skills programs may help some couples, there is no evidence that government policies can substantially increase marriage rates. And many single mothers would be poor even if they married the fathers of their children, because both the mother and father have limited economic prospects.

A misplaced focus on marriage promotion threatens to distract us from making the most of some important good news: More single mothers are working and keeping their families out of poverty, and we have many proven policies to support their efforts. The Earned Income Tax Credit and child care and health-care subsidies help make work pay a reasonable return. Unemployment Insurance reforms, paid sick leave, and family leave would make it possible for more mothers to reasonably support their families. Policies that both require and enable nonresident fathers to do their part are also key.

If nothing else had changed, declines in marriage and other changes in family structure would have led to about a two percentage-point increase in poverty between 1969 and 2006, a substantial increase. However, increases in mothers’ work and earnings over the same period reduced poverty, reversing about half the effect of family changes.

If the concern is the number of children living in poverty, the public should know that many will end up living with only one parent no matter what government might do to encourage marriage. Public policies must accept this reality, and focus on proven approaches to improve single-parent families’ economic security by making work pay a reasonable return, encouraging nonresident fathers to do their part, and helping single mothers manage the challenges of being both primary parents and workers.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Charles Q. Tran

Marriage is a double edge sword. Take its bad side seriously.
Paying for spousal and child supports for a very long time are our responsiblities, but there are many people who abuse and take advantage of the current laws.

California family law will go after the father and punish you to death. It does not matter how much I save--there is nothing but pain, pain, and pain that it does not hurt anymore. Be cautious and extra careful.

Diane

Absolutely ridiculous. No wonder people don't view marriage as sacred anymore. Now people are encouraging it as a way to have more money? I'm a single low-income mom, and no matter how much I miss my ex-husband's $70k salary, I will not be remarrying to avoid the responsibility of taking care of myself and children. Not to mention risk marrying for the wrong reasons and finding out I married a compulsive liar who would one day abandon a wife and two children on Christmas Day for his mistress, leaving them homeless and penniless. No thanks.

Millie

I'm inclined to agree with Ms. Cancian. We need more family-friendly policies that help working parents (whether they are mothers or fathers) better balance their home and work lives.

hely

Marriage is sacred. If I marry,the condition is: the woman is the one I really want to live with. If I do not meet the one, I'm glad to be single. Marriage promotion consists of both inside and outside factors. The inside is to earn money, to be wealthy. The outside is a valid economic environment.

clay

I think responsibility and good decision making skills needs to be preached to people. I know some things inevitably happen, but when people are having 3, 4, 5 kids and one person is left to take on all of that responsibility, it explains why the youth of today are dropping out, going to jail, and ending up in poverty at higher rates. What ever happened to stability and accountability? Without it how can you grow to reach your full potential? Very sad.

ns

Wonder why people here are thinking this is a new concept. Good lord...

Peter

Are we recommending Divorce Theft as a legitimate strategy now? (And so soon after the WSJ Alimony special).

David

I can definitely understand the reasoning behind getting married to a man richer than yourself if you're poor. At least in California, after 10 years it's alimony for life, baby. For those of us men who take life seriously and save money, just don't marry.

innocent

What if the man is not rich?

Cloud Strife

With all the policies set up to help working single mothers, why should they get married? If they have the full support of the government and the nonresident fathers, why even have marriage in the first place?

Also, why even bother with men? They are just good for sending money and impregnating women, so why bother with things like stability and role models and teaching proper conduct?

It looks like the questions that everyone is dancing around is 1) Why are there so many single mothers these days? 2)Are they actually encouraging single motherhood with these policies? 3)What man is seriously going to take on the debt and support of a single mother and her kids during this 'he-cession'? 4)What is the difference between this and prostitution?

Peter

Yes, John Cleese married such a low income woman. She was a struggling shrink. Age appropriate too. It really worked out well for him (not).

With the divorce-theft laws that we have in place, no man with IQ above room temprature should marry a woman who earns less than he does.

Only marry equal-earning or richer women; otherwise the Family Courts will see to it that you are paying alimony until the day you die.

Squeezebox

My mother always said that the hardest money you ever earn is the money you marry for. Best advice is not to have children. Children are the biggest cause of poverty. If you end up pregnant, give your children up for adoption. Let some other sucker pay for your mistake.

joe

Don't marry.

jude

The spirit could exert such spiritual enjoyment like love, happiness, success, and silence,etc., which definitely
encourage people to develop their career.

tech10171968

Funny how a woman who marries for financial reasons will bristle at being called a prostitute. At least the prostitute is more honest about why she's keeping you company.

The irony is rich, isn't it?

Zammo

Marriage is not a great way for women to gain financially.

It's the divorce where women can truly win financially.

Gentlemen--would you take a cruise on a ship that had a 50% chance of sinking and the only lifeboats are women and children?

That's marriage.

Khan

Marriage is a life long commitment, not a quick ticket to financial success or financial ruin.

If money is the only criteria for marriage, people should be advised to not marry.

If social balance, justice, tranquility, and future sustenance of healthy populance is the goal, there is no other proven system than marriage.

Somebody did all of that for you to be here. Have you done your part?

Roofingbird

I find I must control my apoplexy and attempt a few comments here. The irony of BusinessWeek endorsing a front page debate over whether low-income women should get married as a way out of poverty gloriously reiterates the bottom line of marriage. It is a financial contract. It is a contract with negotiations, most of which never sealed by the written word. As a consequence, women are not legally equal partners in a marriage. Yet Haskins promotes the idea of marriage for money. Why assume low-income women and especially minority women (where Haskins states the problem is RAMPANT) should succumb to this implied prostitution any more than another class?

Haskins says:

"I do favor marriage promotion programs conducted by community-based organizations such as churches and other nonprofit civic groups. The activities these groups should sponsor include counseling, marriage education, job assistance, parenting, anger control, avoiding domestic violence, and money management."

Nowhere does he suggest an attorney to work out the legal agreement. Thus, he conveniently hides the bottom line under what are otherwise noble social sentiments.

Why does not the title say “Low Income Men: get married”? Has BusinessWeek has set up a game of “Let’s You and Him fight.” Why? Why over classicism, racism and sexism?

Haskins provides the answer. He yet again has conveniently loaded all the responsibility, social ills, and societal faults of the above noted offspring onto the women. Last I heard men were still 50% responsible for these children.

We are in a recession. More than 10% of us are unemployed nationally. 70% of us lost financial ground in the last 10 years. We will not see improvement on a personal level anytime soon. Suggesting low-income women can somehow fix themselves by marriage is a very tired old bone to toss out.

No matter what arguments are advanced here, BusinessWeek, you have lost this debate.

mae

Marriage will not definitely solve the problem of poverty. I am a student and about to graduate. Right now, I am afraid of getting married because it entails a lot of responsibility and tons of family-related expenses.

Alton Drew

Whether it's traditional families or families headed by a single parent, the way out of poverty is via economic opportunities. Government's only role should be to keep an infrastructure in place that promotes economic opportunities. Some single parents, myself included, simply do not want to get married again if at all. It's not the government's role to promote marriage or to fill in as quasi-familial support. Yes, we single parents, particularly entrepreneurs, have certain issues that have to be addressed particularly the balancing of work and family but those concerns can be met in the market by after school programs, etc. Marriage is not a public policy tool.

lisa

My boyfriend and I are engaged, and he wants to wait till he's 30 to be married. However, I am a single parent and recently lost my job--would it benefit us to get married now so that he can claim my daughter? He is not her father but has been supporting us for 4 years. I would like to see him benefit for all he has done for us.

DaWan

Marriage is a nice idea in principle but not so much in actual practice. Women always claim that money isn't everything, yet the minute a divorce kicks in, they'll go after and get everything including the shirt on your back. Emotions and feelings often change with the season. Men: Don't get married and don't have anymore than one, if any, children.

herault

As we can witness with Tiger in the woods, there are too many opportunites to stray from the fold and fall into the trap of self-indugence.

Men have a weak spot. They lust after women and sometimes ruin their families' lives. Family life is important for children. They will be the real victims. By poor how do you quantify that situation?

If a man and woman combined have a fair income, maybe they can manage if they dont buy lots of junk. Living within your means is the trick. As a "poor" person (relatively speaking by American standards) with a "poor" wife, we can manage although what helps is her family support.

How do you cost a united family not divided by the barrier of money and status-seekers?

Funny how the very rich think everyone else is very rich...or is that wishful thinking and denial?

Kate

If women were paid the same as men and not punished for having children, perhaps they wouldn't need to marry in order to survive financially.

Marriage isn't the answer, especially in the lower socio-economic level of society. There are too many obstacles that accompany poverty that hinder even the closest of relationships. When the single most frequent argument among married couples focuses on money, and leads them into the divorce courts, offering up marriage as a solution to financial insecurity is imbecilic at best.

amy

Boy, anything to sell ad space, I guess.

If you really want financial stability for low-income single mothers, put those deadbeat daddies on the chain gang. Won't work in a documented way voluntarily? Fine, you can work for the state.

Amazing how much of the poverty problem that'd clear up.

MartianBachelor

With all the government-as-husband programs low income women can avail themselves of, and with me paying taxes, I kinda "am" married en masse, in a way. But it's essentially a shotgun marriage from which I can't get a divorce, and I don't get one thing coming back in my direction from any of them.

Those who think (real) marriage is a Good Thing should work on making it attractive to men again. Today, women have too many incentives not to marry, and, if they do, to divorce their husbands for financial profit. (Ever notice how men look nervous and women are smiling in their wedding photos?) This obviously discourages those men who might be best at dragging women out of poverty from considering marriage; marriage needs to be made safe for men before this guy will come back to it.

Brennus

Marriage is not a prerequisite for a two parent home. Marriage is simply a social contrivance to tranfer property rights, nothing more. Since poor people have very little property marriage among them is a meaningless symbol of false morality.

Now a truely novel idea would be to promote programs that encourage parents (not necessarily married couples) to raise thier children together. A good example would be funding quality daycare as parents who work for subsistence wages struggle most with the care of children and most programs penalize these same struggling families for earning ans income, which seems counter intuitive to me.

Stone

The fundamentals of any relationship must be stronger than the forces and events that will test it. I personally would not marry for anything but love. If I know a woman wanted to marry me for anything other than love, that would be the end of the relationship.

Linda C Smith

Are we in the Dark Ages? I can just hear the echoes of my grandmother's grandmother giving the advice of "marry you a rich man." We're in the 21st century now and it's time that adults - whether men or women - learn to be accountable and responsible for themselves. Marriage ought to be done because that is what will give meaning to the couple involved; not to give a poor woman an income.

Renee Kofi-Bruce

Compatibility, affection, respect, support and affirmation. Partnership can and should do all of those things.
Most important though is that two heads and/or incomes are usually better than one.

Aditya

Its a common responsibility of both wife and husband to make a happy living family, though the expenses like for children education and other things will need more money, its a common thing for every one.

Mojo

Just imagine if the man is not rich, even worse, as poor as that low-income woman...Still get trapped in hell.

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