It is no secret that the institution of marriage is in trouble. The median age at first marriage is at its highest since the United States began keeping reliable statistics: 24 for women and 26 for men. Nearly six of every 10 new marriages will end in divorce, and the propensity to remarry has also declined. Though these trends cut across race, ethnic, and class lines, poor adults from disadvantaged minority groups marry and remarry far less than others.
Whether these trends are a cause for concern or celebration is in the eye of the beholder. Some happily take them as an indication that women can now survive without men who beat them, abuse their children, or are otherwise difficult to live with. Others lament the moral effect on the fabric of American society. Still others worry because of the strong association between growing up with a single parent and a host of negative outcomes for children. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur's work reveals that half the disadvantage these children face reflects the poverty so often associated with single parenthood (almost 50 percent of all unmarried mothers have family incomes below the poverty line); the other half reflects such factors as lower parental involvement and supervision, and greater residential mobility in mother-only families. Why, then, do low-income women continue to have and raise children outside marriage, in the face of these daunting circumstances?
In 1990 I began publishing the results of a study of low-income single mothers that showed it was nearly impossible for these women to make ends meet on either a welfare check or a low-wage job [see Kathryn Edin and Christopher Jencks, "The Real Welfare Problem," TAP, Spring 1990]. Drawing data from in-depth multiple interviews with nearly 400 low-income single mothers in four U.S. cities, my research collaborator Laura Lein and I documented large monthly budget deficits for single mothers, whether on welfare or in low-wage employment. Even though they were clever at devising strategies to make up their budget shortfalls, these strategies took a great deal of time and energy; they were highly unstable and sometimes illegal. The women's situations resembled a continually unraveling patchwork quilt. Because of the budget gaps and the instability of the strategies used to bridge them, these single mothers and their children often went without items most Americans would consider necessities: adequate food or shelter, clothing, heat, electricity, telephone service, and adequate health care or health insurance.
In the mid-1990s, Lein and I began to appear as guests on radio talk shows around the country. When we told the story of the hardship these single mothers and their children faced, callers invariably asked two questions. First, if things were so bad for these single mothers, callers wondered, why did they have children in the first place? Second, wouldn't these women be better off if they simply got married? For these listeners, both motherhood and singleness were choices low-income women had made, and these choices had led to the hardships. I had inadvertently touched upon a raw nerve in a large segment of Americans; their anger and incomprehension went very deep. I decided it was worth asking these questions of low-income single mothers themselves.
People's ideas about children and marriage presumably emerge out of interactions they have with one another in a given ecological context (a family, kinship group, or neighborhood)a context that may have distinctive cultural and structural features. The Philadelphia metropolitan area, where my colleagues and I conducted our most recent interviews, contains many poor neighborhoods that tend to be segregated by race and ethnicity. We tried to ensure a balanced representation of whites, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans, the three main racial and ethnic groups in the area. In Philadelphia single parents headed nearly 23 percent of white family households with children under eighteen in 1990. The rate was 44 percent for Hispanics and 63 percent for African Americans. These rates are not unlike those in the rest of the country (18 percent, 29 percent, and 53 percent respectively).
Theories about Marriage
Four theories of nonmarriage hold currency among scholars. First, Gary Becker and others point to the increasing economic independence of women. According to Becker's economic theory of the family, women who can earn a living on their own will find marriage less attractive than those financially dependent on men. Though this explanation for declining marriage rates makes intuitive sense, the evidence is mixed. While more women have indeed been entering the paid labor force during the years when marriage has been declining, the effect on low-income women may be paradoxical. Some analyses show that for low-income women, marriage and earnings are positively relatedas a woman's income rises, so does the probability that she will be married.
Starting from the other side of the relationship, William Julius Wilson has looked at changes in men's economic position, assuming that a man must be stably employed for a woman to consider him marriage material. He points to the declines in unskilled men's employment over the past 30 years and to large decreases in unskilled wages. Wilson argues that shrinking labor force participation and declining wages create an imbalance in marriage markets, particularly among African Americans, whose male employment rates and wages remain lower than those of other groups. While this theory is broadly persuasive, the declines in marriage are even greater than the theory would predict.
Third, Charles Murray and others blame welfare. As welfare became more generous, women increasingly traded dependence on a man for dependence on the government. In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court struck down the man-in-the-house rule (which had prohibited female welfare recipients from cohabiting with a man). In Murray's estimation, cohabiting while remaining unmarried became the rational option for a poor couple because they could combine his earnings with her welfare allotment. Nonmarital childbearing did rise in the 1960s and 1970s. However, welfare benefits shrank in real terms from the mid-1970s to the 1990s, while nonmarital childbearing still continued to increase. And there is not much empirical association between the relative generosity of welfare benefits state by state and changes in marriage rates.
Fourth, some observers cite cultural factors. Arguably, the women's movement and women's entry into the paid labor force have revolutionized women's notions of gender roles. There is certainly evidence that among lower-income adults, women's views have changed far more dramatically than men's, and the result is a mismatch in sex role expectations of poor men and women. Yet I know of no analyses that have looked directly at how changes in sex role expectations have influenced marriage rates per se.
There is even more confusion and disagreement on the question of why poor single women have babies. Some scholars and advocates view this as a dysfunctional act, to be remedied by more intensive education on the wisdom of using birth control and deferring pregnancy. Other research has found that given the available alternatives, having a baby may not be all that irrational for some single poor women. Arlene Geronimous and Sanders Korenman found that comparable women who waited to have babies were no better off economically than those who had babies as teens. The Prospect has addressed this issue [see Kristin Luker, "Dubious Conceptions: The Controversy over Teen Pregnancy," TAP, Spring 1991.]
Listening to the Poor
So we are still left with more questions than answers. How do low-income single mothers feel about marriage? What factors do they believe prevent them from marrying? To what extent does the marriage norm still operate in poor communities?
One way to get at the often subtle and complex meanings of marriage in poor communities is to listen to residents at length, observe and take part in their daily routines, and immerse oneself in their world. Thus far, my colleagues and I have talked with over 130 black, white, and Puerto Rican mothers in nine neighborhoods across the Philadelphia metropolitan area. These interviews reveal four major motives for nonmarriage among the poor: affordability, respectability, trust, and control. Some of these motives fit with current theories of nonmarriage, but some do not. Overall, the interviews show that although mothers still aspire to marriage, they feel that it entails far more risks than rewardsat least marriage to the kind of men who fathered their children and live in their neighborhoods. Mothers say these risks may be diminished if they can find the "right" manand they define "rightness" in both economic and noneconomic terms. In sum, they say they are willing and even eager to wed if the marriage represents substantial economic upward mobility and their husband doesn't beat them, abuse their children, insist on making all the decisions, or "fool around" with other women. If they cannot find such a man, most would rather remain single.
Mothers see economic stability on the part of a prospective partner as a necessary precondition for marriage. Welfare-reliant and low-wage working mothers worry a great deal about money simply because they have to. The price for not balancing their budgets is high: the stability of the household and the well-being of their children. Though men frequently contribute to mothers' households, their employment situations are often unstable and their contributions vary. Mothers' consistent needs for supplemental income, combined with men's erratic employment and earnings, mean that couples often break up over money or fail to marry because of it.
Mothers aren't completely cold and calculating when they weigh the costs and benefits of keeping a man around. Many say they try to take into account the effort their men put into finding and keeping a job. But if the man quits or loses his job for reasons the woman views as his own fault, he often loses the right to co-reside in the household, share in family meals, or even to maintain any romantic relationship with her. Mothers whose boyfriends live with them almost always told us they impose a "pay and stay" ruleif the men are out of work and not contributing to household expenses, they eventually lose the right to co-reside. One Puerto Rican mother said,
I didn't want to be mean or anything, [but when he didn't work], I didn't let him eat my food. I would tell him, "If you can't put any food here, you can't eat here. These are your kids, and you should want to help your kids, so if you come here, you can't eat their food." Finally, I told him he couldn't stay here either.
Since these men can seldom afford their own apartment and are not eligible for housing subsidies because they have no custodial children, they are often powerfully motivated to try and maintain a place in their girlfriend's household. Often, their only alternatives are to move back in with their own mother or to live on the streets. No low-income single mother we have spoken to has allowed a nonpaying male partner to sponge off her welfare or paycheck for any substantial length of time simply because neither welfare nor low-wage employment pay enough to make this an affordable option.
One might expect that, given their economic needs, mothers would pressure their men into engaging in any form of employment available, including the drug trade. But virtually all tell us that "drug money" cannot buy marriage or even long-term co-residence. In fact, it is often a father's entry into the drug trade that breaks young couples up (except when the woman herself is addicted, in which case she usually loses custody of the children). Mothers fear that if their man gets involved in drug dealing, he might stash weapons, drugs, or drug proceeds in the household, that the violence of street life might follow him into the household, that he will end up in prison, or that he will start "using his product." Mothers consider these outcomes inevitable for anyone who participates in the drug trade for long. Even more worrisome for mothers is the negative role model a drug-dealing husband would provide their children. One African-American mother recounted, "The baby came home and [my child's father] was still selling drugs. I kept on telling him, 'Well, it's time for you to get a job now. . . . The kid's home now, and its time for you to get a job . . . and a job where you're not gonna get hurt or you're not gonna get locked up.'"
The somewhat mercenary nature of mothers' marriage views does not mean they do not care deeply about the men in their lives. Indeed, holding men to economic standards even the mothers recognize are hard to attain is often emotionally wrenching. One Puerto Rican mother admitted,
There was a struggle going on inside of me. I mean, he lost his job at the auto body shop when they went [bankrupt] and closed down. Then he couldn't find another one. But it was months and months, and I was trying to live on my welfare check and it just wasn't enough. Finally, I couldn't do it anymore [because] it was just too much pressure on me [even though] he is the love of my life. I told him he had to leave even though I knew it wasn't really his fault that [he wasn't working]. But I had nothing in the house to feed the kids, no money to pay the bills, nothing. And he was just sitting there not working. I couldn't take it, so I made him leave.
This dilemma is particularly stark in the neighborhoods we are studying, where unemployment rates are three or four times higher than the national average. Deferring or avoiding marriage allows mothers to substitute an economically productive male for an unproductive one, should the need arise. Divorce takes both time and money, both of which these mothers find in short supply.
Many middle-class Americans, like the talk-show callers, believe that the marriage norm no longer operates within poor communities because these men and women think too little of marriage. Our interviews revealed the opposite. Women often said they avoid marriage because they think too much of it. Indeed, marriage often had a kind of sacred significance in the communities we studied, a marker of respectability. However, marriage signals respectability for low-skilled mothers only if accompanied by financial stability and some measure of upward mobility. As one young African-American mother declared, "I'm not marrying nobody until they can move me into my own apartment or my own house." Marriage to an economically unproductive or erratically employed man, on the other hand, makes the mother a "fool" in the eyes of her friends and neighbors. Mothers find it somewhat more respectable to remain single and hold out hope that they will eventually make a respectable match. Even for mothers who could technically afford to marry a "low-class" man, such a union would entail a diminished level of class respectability. Like the young white mother in the following quote, our respondents tended to group marriage together with other status markers such as diplomas, careers, savings accounts, and houses:
I want a big wedding. I want to be setout of school, have a career, and then go from there. . . . Yeah, my friends that have children, my one girlfriend, she's engaged, but they're not getting married . . . until they have some money put aside. My other girlfriend, she wants to get a house first and be ready with that and then decide.
In these communities (as in much of America), a wife appropriates the class standing of her husband. Marriage to an economically unproductive male means, in these mothers' view, permanently taking on his very low status. A woman who marries a poor or economically unstable man makes a profound statement to the larger community (and to herself): "This is the best I can do." Such a choice will garner the ridicule rather than the respect of neighbors and kin. By avoiding marriage to men with attributes similar to their own, mothers hope they will someday find a man through whom they can gain enhanced class standing and respectability. As one white mother succinctly put it, "I just want [a marriage] that will take me up to where I want to go."
Though many of our respondents have given up on marriage altogether, this is more because of their low view of the men they know than because they reject the institution of marriage itself. Among the low-income couples we observed, the battle between the sexes often looks more like outright war, and many women say that they regard men simply as "children," "no good," or "low-down dirty dogs." Women tend to believe men are untrustworthy in several respects. First, they fear that the men will not (or cannot, in some women's view) be sexually faithful. One young African-American mother stated, "I feel like this: A married man, a single man, a man that's in a relationship for a certain amount of timethey're still gonna run around. A man is gonna be a man." Another said, "There's a shortage of men, so they think, 'I can have more than one woman. I'm gonna go around to this one or that one, and I'm gonna have two or three of them.'" Like these mothers, many women view infidelity as almost inevitable (part of men's "nature"), but they are not willing to accept it as a natural part of marriage.
Women believe the best way to avoid being deceived by an unfaithful spouse is to either avoid marriage altogether (being cheated on by a boyfriend generally entails less loss of face because the woman has not publicly tied herself to the man "for life") or delay marriage while observing and evaluating a potential spouse's behavior over time. If he fails to confirm her fears after several years or shows improvement, she might consider him "marriage material." A white respondent admitted, "Living with [a man] would be fine. If after I lived with him for a couple of years and I see that nothing's gonna change in the relationship, then maybe I'll marry him. But he's gotta be somebody that's got [enough] money to take care of me."
Mothers also mistrust men's ability to handle money. While mothers are hard-pressed to pay their bills each month and therefore budget their money carefully, many view men as prone toward wasteful or selfish spending. An African-American mother recounted, "I gave [my child's father] the money to go buy my son's Pampers. He went on some street with his cousin [and] they were down there partying, drinking, everything. He spent my son's Pamper money [on partying]."
Most mothers understand that a married couple has joint responsibility for either party's debt, while unmarried partners need not assume such responsibility. When a mother considers marriage, she usually begins to demand financial accountability of her partner (which not only ensures that the bills get paid but also makes it harder for him to maintain a relationship with a woman "on the side"). Perhaps not surprisingly, a prospective husband may resent these financial demands and might not always comply, thus confirming her view of his financial irresponsibility.
Additionally, mothers often do not trust men with their children. Respondents tell us stories about men (both their children's fathers and other boyfriends) who leave children home alone, engage in unsuitable activities (heavy drinking or smoking crack, for example) in front of them, neglect to feed or otherwise care for a child in their charge, or even physically or sexually abuse a child. A white respondent recounted a time when she let her children's father take them on a short trip: "I let him take them down the shore. He got into a fight with his girlfriend, beat her up, got locked up. I didn't know where my kids were [and] I didn't find out until 9:00 [the next morning]."
While mothers feel that the experience of parenthood has matured them, fathers without primary custody have never been forced to stop "rippin' and runnin' the streets" and to "settle down." Indeed, most mothers we talk with say their children's fathers have not perceptibly "changed their ways" since they became parents. When asked about her baby's father, one white mother said, "He's 25, but he still likes to run the streets and go out with his friends all the time. I just can't be bothered with that." An African-American mother stated, "Sometimes men don't grow up as fast as women. He's still a kid in parta kid, period, to be honest with you." Another white mother was even more caustic: "They're stupid. They're still little boys. You think you can get one and mold him into a man, [but] they turn out to be assholes. All men are. They're good for one thing and one thing only, and it ain't supporting me."
While mothers express profound distrust toward men in many ways, they have not always held these attitudes. Many described loving and even committed relationships to their children's fathers or other male partners in the past, and often used the terms "love of my life" or "first love" to describe how they felt (and sometimes still feel) about these relationships. The story differs somewhat for the divorced mothers and those who never married.
Many never-married mothers often related that, prior to their pregnancy, relationships with their children's fathers were warm, romantic, and loving; a good number said they had even planned to marry. But as the pregnancy progressed, many mothers say that their boyfriend's behavior changed dramatically: Boyfriends who had been warm and loving often became panicked, hostile, and uncommunicative. One African-American mother said, "That first stage of me being pregnant was so stressful. . . . He would call up [and say that] I was cheating on him and it wasn't his baby. I went through that the whole [pregnancy, with him calling me a] cheater." A startling number of women tell us that their boyfriends beat them while they're pregnant (often by punching them in the stomach or pushing them down the stairs). One young white mother recalled,
He started really beating me up. I was pregnant and he beat the shit out of me. . . . I must have been like four, five months pregnant. . . . By then I had a belly. . . . He's on top of mea grown six-foot-two man, 205 pounds, [and] I'm five feet and maybe 120 pounds because of the fact that I was pregnanthim on top of me, beating me up, punching me, hitting me. And I got a belly [with] his child.
These relationships deteriorate partly because, as the woman's pregnancy advances, her sense of what she and the baby will need materially grows more concrete. Though an intermittently employed boyfriend might have adequate funds to play the role of boyfriend, a pregnant girlfriend quickly realizes that these meager earnings cannot support a family. A young man who may have been completely acceptable six months prior is suddenly viewed as "no good" by his girlfriend, even when his behavior may not have changed in any way.
Mothers often describe a golden period in their relationship with the child's father once their child is born. Often, the father comes to the hospital during or after the birth, and the couple renews their desire to stay together and perhaps marry. However, the new mother, who necessarily begins to deal with the practical demands of raising the child, again places increased financial demands on the father. One African-American mother recalled that after the baby was born,
That's when everything started blowing up. I didn't wanna be with him no more 'cause he wasn't working and he was getting on my nerves. . . . He just never gave me no money. I would tell him, you know, "Well, the baby needs diapers." "Well, I don't have no money." "The baby needs milk." "Well, I don't have no money." I just started getting mad. I had to buy milk and diapers so I just told him to leave me alone.
Fathers in tight economic straits grow increasingly resentful, and the relationship quickly deterioratessometimes within days of the birth. Many of the same fathers that talked of romance and marriage at the hospital often deny that they are the father of the child soon after. They accuse their baby's mother of "stepping out," "sleeping around," or "whoring" behind their back. Some demand a blood test before buying anything for the baby. Not surprisingly, these scenarios increase women's mistrust. One African-American mother said, "[When] a woman gets pregnant, right away the man [says], 'It's not mine.' I mean, if you're together eight years, how come it's not yours all of a sudden?"
For married women, the devastation is perhaps deeper because their expectations are often higher. Most say they had expected their marriages to last "forever" and had often given up educational or occupational goals to wed and to raise children. These women seldom suffer through the harsh pregnancy experiences and subsequent denial of paternity the unmarried women report, but the public humiliation that relational failure can bring is perhaps greater. Separated or divorced mothers described painful breakups due to infidelity, financial irresponsibility, domestic violence, alcoholism or drug abuse, or child abuseprecisely echoing the fears of the unmarried women. These mothers' experiences also leave them unwilling or unable to trust men.
When we ask mothers what they like best about being a single mother, many tell us that they enjoy being in control. Some of the previously married women have at one time been almost completely dependent on a man, having moved directly from their natal household to their husband's with little or no work experience in between. Having not worked full time for years, these women have forgone investments in human capital that might have resulted in higher wages. The period of economic shock and near-destitution that oftentimes follows the marital breakup is a painful one, and mothers say that every inch of economic independence they currently enjoy has been hard won. These lessons convince most mothers that it simply isn't safe to completely depend on a man again. One divorced African-American woman said, "One guy was like, 'Marry me, I want a baby.' I don't want to have to depend on anybody. No way. I [would rather] work. [If I married him and had his baby], I'd [have to quit work and] be dependent again. It's too scary."
For never-married mothers, the story is somewhat different. Some of these women are taught life's hard lessons by their own mothers, older sisters, aunts, and other older female kin, whose boyfriends or husbands beat them, cheat on them, abuse their children, or "drink or smoke up their paychecks." For others, enrollment in the school of hard knocks began during pregnancy or after childbirth, for reasons described above. Having and caring for a child often reveals in unmarried mothers competencies they did not know that they possessed. Yet they feel that men often do not respect these competencies and want to be in control. Unmarried male partners cannot fully exert this control because they know their female partners can get rid of them at any time. As one white woman asserted, "I can kick him out whenever I want to kick him out. This is my life. No one can tell me what to do." Once marriage vows are taken, mothers are afraid all that might change. A divorced white mother stated,
They think that piece of paper says they own you. You are their personal slave. Cook their meals, clean their house, do their laundry. Who did it before I came along, you know? That's why they get married. A man gets married to have somebody to take care of them 'cause their mommy can't do it anymore.
Most low-income single mothers don't want to be owned or to "slave" for their husbands. They want marriages that are partnerships of equals. Most believe that the best way to maintain power in a romantic relationship is to make sure they are contributing financially to the household economy. A white woman described an ideal marriage this way: "It will be me and my husband [both] working. We both work, [while] the children are in school." A good marriage from the woman's point of view is one where she contributes financially so that she has a say in the decision making. The greater her financial contribution, the more say she believes she is entitled to.
Since mothers also believe that childbearing and the early child-rearing years mandate at least a partial withdrawal from the labor market, mothers equate the early child-rearing years with relational vulnerability. A marriage that occurs prior to or during the prime family-building years, when the mother is least able to contribute financially to the household, is likely to leave a mother quite powerless in her relationship with her husband. Waiting until all of the children are in school (or even out on their own) means that mothers can focus more of their energies on paid labor and increase their chances of entering into a marital relationship with more control. Such marriages, they feel, are more likely to be both satisfying and sustainable over time. As a young African-American mother said,
I want to have a nice job, [so] that I know if he walked out I have something to fall back on. The mortgage [and] everything [else] is going to be in my name. That's how I want it to be. . . . I do want to get married, but I'm going to get myself stabilized and get everything together with me and [my daughter] before I even take that route.
Since the 1970s, a sharply declining proportion of unskilled men has been able to earn enough to support a family. As the accounts of Philadelphia-area, low-income, single mothers illustrate, these trends have had a profound influence on marriage: Women simply cannot afford to keep an economically unproductive or intermittently employed man around the house. Unless a prospective marriage partner has the resources to ensure a mother some level of social mobility, she will not generally consider marriage even if she could "afford" to do so. I know of no data that demonstrate that gender mistrust has grown over time, but certainly the risk of divorceand the economic destitution for women that so often accompanies ithas grown.
Beyond affordability, respectability, and trust, these interviews suggest a wide gap between low-income men and women's expectations in regard to gender roles. Women who have proven their competencies though the hard lessons of single parenthood aren't generally willing to enter subservient rolesthey want to maintain power in subsequent relationships. Those who plan on marrying generally assume they will put off marriage until their children are in school, and until they are working steadily. By waiting to marry until after early child-rearing and the temporary labor market withdrawal that accompanies it, mothers feel they can minimize these risks and enhance their bargaining power within marriage.
In relation to theories of the retreat from marriage, I find little support for the argument that these women are eschewing marriage because of their enhanced prospects for economic independence outside of marriage (though the theory could well be true for higher-skilled women). Indeed, poor women seem to view economic independence almost as a prerequisite for marriage. I also find virtually no support for the welfare disincentives argument, since very few mothers say that they have avoided marriage or remarriage to maintain eligibility for welfare, even when asked directly.
In short, these low-income single mothers believe that marriage will probably make their lives more difficult. They do not, by and large, perceive any special stigma to remaining single. If they cannot enjoy economic stability and respectability from marriage, they see little reason to expose themselves or their children to men's lack of trustworthiness and sometimes violent behavior, or to risk the loss of control they fear marriage might exact from them. Unless low-skilled men's economic situations improve and they begin to change their behaviors toward women, it is quite likely that large numbers of low-income women will continue to resist marriage.