Poor people value marriage as much as the middle class and rich, study shows

07.19.2012, 11:51 PM

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.

Thoughts?

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.


7 Responses to “Poor people value marriage as much as the middle class and rich, study shows”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Barry, what was the definition of low-income in the study? US Federal poverty level?

    It’s really refreshing to see a study that acknowledges that substance abuse is a problem, and that it’s a problem that can be effectively addressed as a public health issue rather than a personal moral failing that’s just a matter of inadequate willpower.

    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)

    That also resonates with me. Higher-income families seem to be more individualistic—working class and poor families have to be more collectivist in outlook and practice. While there are times that can be helpful, it can also be stressful. Sometimes, that means you’re expected to stretch your own meager resources out in order to benefit some other family member, because there isn’t enough to go around. Or assist someone in crisis—thus, bringing all their crisis into your life as well (which can create various problems, from financial to workplace issues). That’s a big difference between the lives of lower-income and higher-income people that is often overlooked. That’s what I thought of when I read the “financial problems, friends” part.

  2. La Lubu, thanks for the comment! As usual, I agree with you too much to have much to say in response.

    But to answer your question, the study defined low-income as “household income of less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.”

  3. Fitz says:

    One real problem I dont see the study addressing is the absence of assitance once a single mother losses once she actually marries the father of her child.

    WIC and other programs are geared to single woman. These woman fear that they will loose public assitance dollars, foodstamps, and rent assiatance if they combine there incomes with the low income of their spouse..who’s work may be seasonal, sporadic and temporary.

    This seems like one area the goverment could help since it is the one rendering the assistance.

  4. La Lubu says:

    WIC and other programs are geared to single woman. These woman fear that they will loose public assitance dollars, foodstamps, and rent assiatance if they combine there incomes with the low income of their spouse..who’s work may be seasonal, sporadic and temporary.

    Mark this day down on the calendar—I’m almost agreeing with Fitz! *smile* Where I don’t agree is (a) WIC isn’t geared to single women; it’s the one program that actually allows a relative “higher” income than other poverty abatement programs. When I was on unemployment, I qualified for WIC—but nothing else, as unemployment benefits (which have a maximum, but are otherwise based on your earnings). and (b) that seasonal, sporadic, temporary work is itself a big problem. When I read this:

    Low-income groups had higher economic standards for marriage

    it resonated. Poor and working class women don’t want to be left holding the bag. We’re strapped already. Even if I met a really nice guy, if he lived hand-to-mouth, I wouldn’t be interested in him.

    There’s a lot of across-the-board societal recognition that men are loathe to take on responsibilities they can’t meet, which people across the left/right spectrum believe can be resolved by things like increased wages and not cutting off assistance to people who are holding up their end of the social contract. But there isn’t a lot of appreciation for the fact that women feel the same way—we also don’t want to incur obligations we don’t feel we can meet, especially if we already have more than the average amount.

    Most people feel a higher level of obligations to a spouse than they feel to a dating partner. The law recognizes a higher level of obligations to a spouse than to a dating partner. All kinds of social institutions from the formal to informal recognize spouses as being different from “boyfriends/girlfriends”.

    Maybe it’s cold, but I screen for economic responsibility and adequacy. I expect any man I would marry to bring the same things to the table that I do. And if he can’t—sorry, but “nice guy” isn’t enough. I want my kid to go to college, too. I want to retire, too. I want a cushion of savings so the bottom doesn’t fall through my finances if something happens (say, the furnace quits). I literally cannot afford a partner who isn’t earning enough to support himself plus put money back. And I’m not even a poor woman–I’m in the “upper working class”. But…poor women also expect a man to bring something to the table besides himself.

    So to college-educated men, for that matter—-they won’t marry non-college-educated women. Economic instability is creeping upwards; it’s not just for the poor anymore.

  5. [...] December 1, 2011. This is a serious issue that must be treated with the respect that it is due. We all know that doctors are people too, though many times they are placed upon pedestals where they…have us believe in the success of the program based on the results of the 5 year study running from [...]

  6. [...] promoting marriage seems even more crucial than when Fox-Genovese was writing. Incidentally, research does support her argument that merely telling poor people to get married is unlikely to restore the [...]