The title of this post comes from the UCLA press release:
Poor people hold more traditional values toward marriage and divorce than people with moderate and higher incomes, UCLA psychologists report in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
The findings are based on a large survey about marriage, relationships and values, analyzed across income groups. They raise questions about how effectively some $1billion in government spending to promote the value of marriage among the poor is being spent.
“A lot of government policy is based on the assumption that low-income people hold less traditional views about marriage,” said Benjamin Karney, a UCLA professor of psychology and senior author of the study. “However, the different income groups do not hold dramatically different views about marriage and divorce — and when the views are different, they are different in the opposite direction from what is commonly assumed. People of low income hold values that are at least as traditional toward marriage and divorce, if not more so.”
The study, What’s (Not) Wrong With Low-Income Marriages, is by Thomas E. Trail and Benjamin R. Karney. The abstract:
In the United States, low marriage rates and high divorce rates among the poor have led policymakers to target this group for skills- and values-based interventions. The current research evaluated the assumptions underlying these interventions; specifically, the authors examined whether low-income respondents held less traditional values toward marriage, had unrealistic standards for marriage, and had more problems managing relational problems than higher income respondents. They assessed these issues in a stratified random sample that oversampled low-income and non-White populations (N = 6,012). The results demonstrated that, relative to higher income respondents, low-income respondents held more traditional values toward marriage, had similar romantic standards for marriage, and experienced similar skills-based relationship problems. Low-income groups had higher economic standards for marriage and experienced more problems related to economic and social issues (e.g., money, drinking/drug use) than did higher income respondents. Thus, efforts to save low-income marriages should directly confront the economic and social realities these couples face.
And from a section in the paper in which they discuss the implications of their work for policy:
The relationship problems that low-income respondents do experience as more severe than higher income respondents included problems that are generally more common among low-income populations (e.g., problems with money, substance abuse)but also included problems with ﬁdelity and friends. It is important to note that, as in previous research (Amato & Previti, 2003; Karney & Bradbury, 1995), these problems are largely related to external stressors (i.e., ﬁnancial problems, friends) and problem behaviors (i.e., substance abuse) rather than relationship-centered problems, raising questions about the appropriateness of interventions targeting low-income couples that focus primarily on interpersonal processes (e.g., communication and problem solving).
To be sensitive to the unique challenges that may be associated with higher vulnerability in this population, interventions may need to expand their focus to how couples negotiate the demands and temptations of their circumstances. Some state programs have already instituted this type of comprehensive intervention program to improve marriage, incorporating drug and alcohol treatment as well as job training into their programs (Ooms et al., 2004). The current research suggests that this type of intervention should be the norm rather than the exception.
Similarly, programs that promote economic stability in low-income communities (e.g., programs to increase steady employment or assist with debt relief and housing) may have significant effects on marital outcomes in those communities, even if those programs never target marriages or relationships directly. Whatever bolsters the ﬁnancial prospects of low-income couples may remove barriers to marriage and/or forestall divorce for couples struggling with ﬁnancial problems (Levin-Epstein, Ooms, Parke, Roberts, & Turetsky, 2002).
Although the effect of ﬁnancial assistance on marriage and divorce rates is a source of controversy in the literature (Gennetian & Knox, 2003), the current research suggests that these strategies would help relieve stress on low-income relationships, allowing low-income couples to better follow through with their desires for stable, healthy marriages.
My feeling is that there’s now quite a lot of evidence showing that poor people already want to get married and value marriage, and it seems unlikely that any policy intervention aimed at this area is going to do any good.
At the same time, however, it also seems unlikely that policy interventions to help poor people’s economic prospects are going to happen, given our dysfunctional government and Americans’ notorious hatred of income transfer programs. So it’s hard to feel a lot of hope, when thinking about new government interventions to help marriage and/or alleviate poverty.