The News Story – Being married has a lot to do with economic success, scholars say

Nationally syndicated columnist Michelle Singletary trumpeted the results of a new study by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert I. Lerman this week that demonstrated that the retreat from marriage has a lot to do with the state of our national economy.
Summarizing their findings, Singleton writes that “stable, two-parent families decrease the chance of people ending up impoverished. . . . The median income of families with children would have been 44 percent higher in 2012 had we had the same level of married parenthood as we did in the 1980s, the report says.”  Singleton agrees, arguing that her own marriage is testament to the institution’s ability to pull men and women alike into better economic situations than they would have expected.  The gap between rich and poor will only continue to grow if the low-income continue to shy away from marriage, she writes. “We spend a lot of time telling young adults to get a good education so that they can get a good job. The other part of that economic equation is trumpeting the benefits of a stable marriage.”
So why do low-income Americans tend to choose cohabitation and divorce in greater numbers?  Do they value marriage less?  Do they see greater benefit in individual freedom? New research indicates that it might not be the perceptions of low-income Americans that need changing.

The New Research – Do low-income Americans need marriage education?

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.

Researchers, Thomas Trail and Benjamin Karney, found that, like those with moderate and high incomes, 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. 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.”

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson, “New Research” The Family in America Vol 26 Number 3, Fall 2012. Study: 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.)

This article has been republished with permission from The Family in America, a publication of The Howard Center. The Howard Center is a MercatorNet partner site.

Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Howard Center’s quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, the United States’ leading journal of family-policy research....