Skip to main content

Marriage is not antidote to poverty

By Stephanie Coontz, Special to CNN
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Mon September 10, 2012
Brittney Nance fills out an application for food stamps in 2009 in California after she and her husband and children were evicted.
Brittney Nance fills out an application for food stamps in 2009 in California after she and her husband and children were evicted.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephanie Coontz: Chorus of conservatives says marriage, high school diploma fight poverty
  • She says that misleads: 70% in poverty have diploma; there is a scarcity of breadwinning men
  • She says divorce often leaves women worse off than if they'd stayed single, pursued college
  • Coontz: Historically, government investment in safety net, job creation, education cuts poverty

Editor's note: Stephanie Coontz teaches at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and serves as director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."

(CNN) -- Here we go again. Just as in the 1980's, some conservative moralists and pundits are trying to blame America's current economic insecurity, joblessness and social inequality on the very people most victimized by these socioeconomic trends. Once again, they are telling us that people can make it if they just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, keep their shoulders to the grindstone and cross their legs until marriage.

A paper from the Heritage Foundation last week week recycles the 1992 election slogan that the best antidote to poverty is marriage. This theme was also sounded by Rick Santorum at the Republican National Convention, who claimed that the cure for poverty and economic insecurity is within anyone's grasp: "Graduate from high school, work hard and get married before you have children," he exhorted his listeners to thunderous applause, "and the chance you will ever be in poverty is just 2%."

Seriously? Have any of these pundits and politicians talked to any people who have lost their jobs in the past 15 years?

Stephanie Coontz
Stephanie Coontz

Graduating from high school is certainly a good idea, but it's no longer much protection against poverty. In fact, 70% of working-age adults who live in poverty do have high school diplomas, and many have even attended college, according to calculations prepared for a forthcoming paper by economist Shawn Fremstad, senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Over the past three years, indeed, Americans with some college under their belts have experienced sharper declines in income than any other group.

Working hard is also good advice, but a majority of American families have seen their real wages stagnate or decline over the past 30 years, even as they increased their involvement in paid labor. By 2007 -- before the start of the recession -- the average employed 25- to 29-year-old man with a high school degree made almost $4 less per hour (in constant dollars) than his counterpart in 1979.

And that's if he could find work in the first place. The likelihood that such a man would experience a job loss, reduction in pay and benefits, or financial emergency he could not meet out of savings has increased threefold since the 1970s.

In an era when two incomes are increasingly necessary to raise a family, getting married makes excellent economic sense for a woman who wants to have a child. But first she needs to find a man who can actually make a financial contribution to the marriage -- an increasingly difficult task, especially for working-class African-American women.

University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen reports in his forthcoming book, "The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change," that in big cities, there are often fewer than 50 single, employed black men for every 100 unmarried black women in the same age range, because of poor employment opportunities, high incarceration rates and disproportionate mortality rates.

White working-class women, with or without high school degrees, also increasingly face a shortage of marriageable men. And they have good reason to approach marriage cautiously, even if they get pregnant, because economic insecurity is strongly associated with marital distress.

This is one reason that high school graduates are twice as likely to divorce as more economically secure college graduates. Getting married and then divorcing often leaves a woman worse off than if she had remained single, with or without children, and had focused on improving her own earning power.

It is true that single parenthood is associated with poverty, especially in the United States, where single mothers find it hard to work full time or further their education because they lack affordable child care. But nonmarriage is often a result of poverty and economic insecurity rather than a cause. Unemployment, low wages and poverty discourage family formation and erode family stability, making it less likely that individuals will marry in the first place and more likely that their marriages will dissolve.

The claim that single motherhood is currently the biggest obstacle to success in America is particularly wrong-headed, because the claim is almost 30 years out of date. Rising rates of unwed motherhood did contribute to increases in the percentage of low-income and poverty-level families in America from 1975 to 1995. But since then, the majority of the increase in family inequality has been because of growing economic insecurity in groups of people who have the same family structure.

Almost 36% of American's impoverished children -- 5.9 million kids -- live with married parents. If we include low-income families -- people who are just one missed pay check, one illness or one divorce away from poverty -- the figure rises to nearly 50%.

Another claim being recycled in this campaign season-- that our social and economic ills come from people depending too much on government--is equally divorced from reality. One of the biggest myths promulgated over the past two decades has been the insistence that government support systems inevitably perpetuate dependency. But history tells a different story.

From the 1950s to the mid-1970s, the United States greatly increased government support systems for workers, expanding Social Security, enlarging the safety net and investing in school construction and infrastructure that created jobs for blue collar workers while improving housing and educational access for the middle class.

The result? More Americans were able to work their way into economic security and to invest in education and training that enabled their children to do even better. Over that period, the poverty rate was halved, falling from 22% to 11%.

It is not the expansion but the erosion of government support and job creation over the past three decades, in combination with the decline of labor unions and employers' benefits, that largely accounts for the setbacks American families are experiencing and for the decline in social mobility since the 1980s.

Investing in living-wage jobs and reducing the inequities between local school districts would give young people more, not less, incentive to postpone childbearing and more possibilities for independence.

And here's one more thing to ponder for anyone truly interested in helping young people avoid early parenthood: Since the majority of unwed births, especially among youths, are unintended, government should also provide more widespread access to comprehensive sex education programs and contraception, not throw up barriers to such access.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Coontz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT