The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Do Low-Income Americans Need Marriage Education?

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When he launched his healthy-marriage initiative, former President George W. Bush directed the same federal bureaucrats who run the welfare state to administer this multi-million-dollar grant program. The president’s administrative strategy implied that the crisis of marriage in America is largely a problem of the nation’s poor. To be sure, low-income and working-class Americans suffer more family breakdown than the upper-middle class. But a study by psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that the reason for the retreat from marriage among the poor is not that they don’t value wedlock or that they lack “relationship” skills, deficiencies that the Bush administration believed government-funded marriage education would correct.

Thomas Trail and Benjamin Karney came to this conclusion after analyzing the responses of 4,500 adults who participated in the 2003 Florida Family Formation Survey and an additional 1,500 individuals of similar characteristics from California, New York, and Texas. Among their respondents, who were disproportionately non-white, 29 percent had incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level while an additional 10 percent were TANF recipients. Fifty-two percent of the respondents were married; approximately two-thirds of the respondents were female.

The researchers’ data hardly justify the patronizing attitudes often held by those in the helping professions: low-income—including TANF—respondents were found to have remarkably healthy and positive attitudes toward marriage. Like those with moderate and high incomes, these survey participants agreed that a happy marriage is “one of the most important things in life” and that parents “ought to be married.” Low-income respondents were also similar to more affluent respondents in their view of the kinds of benefits marriage can deliver. However, they hoped for more economic benefits and fewer emotional and sexual benefits than did high-income respondents.

What is more, the researchers found no significant differences between low-income couples and high-income couples in reported levels of personal conflict stemming from issues with parenting, communication, sex, household chores, or in-laws. (The researchers did, however, find that low-income couples were more vulnerable than high-income couples to money problems and substance abuse.)

In contrast to the high-income respondents, lower-income respondents were socially conservative in their attitudes. Both low- and moderate-income respondents expressed more traditional views regarding premarital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage; the low-income set even felt more strongly that couples should be of the same race or ethnicity. And expressing views certainly to confound adversarial feminists, lower-income Americans affirmed more conventional gender roles, believing that “the man of the house should make important decisions” and that it is “better for a family if the man earns a living and the woman takes care of the home.”

Likewise, low-income respondents were less accepting than were affluent couples of divorce, believing that divorce reflects poorly on a couple. And they were less likely to agree that dissolving a marriage is “a reasonable solution to an unhappy marriage” but more apt to agree that parents who no longer love each other should stay married for the sake of the children.

Reflecting upon these findings, the California researchers claim: “The culture of marriage is just as strong among low-income populations as it is among those with higher-incomes.” While containing a kernel of truth, their observation compels the question: Why is there less marriage, more divorce, and more children born out of wedlock among the lower classes than among the college-educated crowd?

The researchers seem to believe that more government interventions are necessary to address the greater substance abuse in these populations, as well as more “job training” and targeted programs promoting economic stability. “Whatever bolsters the financial prospects of lower-income couples may remove barriers to marriage,” they claim, seemingly unaware that a generation of anti-poverty programs have attempted to do just that. The sociologists give no thought to the altered legal and policy landscape—from legalized abortion and no-fault divorce—that no longer upholds marriage as the norm, a reordered social landscape that has catalyzed family breakdown among the poor more than the ruling class realizes. 

(Thomas E. Trail and Benjamin R. Karney, “What’s [Not] Wrong with Low-Income Marriages,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74 [June 2012]: 413–27.)