With the War on Poverty marking its 50th anniversary, the scolds are out in force. Their target? Single mothers – especially the poor ones. The preachy ones are reviving an old argument – that if you are a single mother and you are poor, there is a clear solution for you – just get married. There is a blaming quality to the argument, an implication that if you are poor it is your own fault.
To bolster their argument, the just-get-married crowd says that two can live more cheaply than one and that married people have more money than single people do. It is important to recognize the ways in which these claims are true and the ways in which they are misleading.
Here are some facts to keep in mind next time you hear the claim that marriage is a solution to poverty.
#1 Two can live more cheaply than one, except…
This argument is, on the surface, a simple one about economies of scale. If two people live together, they pay one rent or mortgage, one utility bill, one cable bill, and all the rest. But suppose you are a single mom (or anyone else, for that matter) trying to pay all your bills on your own. You hear all those claims about how marrying will lift you out of poverty, so maybe you go for it even if you are not so sure about your partner.
Problem #1 with “fact” #1: If you are poor, perhaps many of the potential partners you meet are also financially strapped. If you marry someone and that person either has no job, has a job but then loses it, or brings in less money than he (or she) spends, then guess what? You are now in worse shape, economically. You still have the same income yourself, but now you are covering the expenses of another adult (and you have that much less space in your place).
Will the person watch the kids while you work, saving you money on childcare that way? Maybe, if they are not out looking for work and not threatened by taking on that role. If you already had someone else helping (a relative, perhaps), then you still are not saving anything.
Problem #2 with “fact” #1: If there really are “economies of scale” advantages to be had, you can get them by cohabiting. Two people living under the same roof have the same electric bill regardless of whether they are married or cohabiting.
Problem #3 with “fact” #1: Not everyone who marries lives together. “Living apart together” is not widely recognized but it is probably practiced by at least 6 percent of all American adults.
#2 Married people have more money than single people, but…
I have spent a lot of time and effort debunking myths about marriage – for example, if you get married, you will be lastingly happier and healthier, live longer, have more and better sex, more interpersonal connections, and raise more successful children. (You can find links to all of the debunking here.) But there is one claim about marriage that I do not contest – if you get married, you probably will become better off financially. (I discuss one of the reasons for that next, in #3.)
Problem #1 with “fact” #2: Marriage as a path to a better financial situation backfires if you get divorced. Research shows that single mothers who get married and then divorce end up in worse shape, financially, than single mothers who stay single. The potential partners for poor single moms may often bring problems of their own that add to the stresses of poverty, resulting in particularly high rates of divorce for those who do marry. If the moralistic pressure to marry pushes even more women to marry partners who are not good for them, then the divorce rate is likely to become higher still, and even more single mothers will end up even worse off financially than they would have been if they had stayed single.
Problem #2 with “fact” #2: There are financial risks to marriage, as, for example, when a partner has debts or a bad credit score or spends very unwisely.
#3 Get married and you hit the government handout jackpot, and you don’t even need to be poor to access it. However…
There are more than 1,000 government benefits and protections available only to those who are legally married, and that’s just at the federal level. Getting access to them was one of the main motivators of the fight for same-sex marriage rights. Single people who cannot get these benefits are basically subsidizing the married people who can. That’s one of the many instances of institutionalized singlism.
However, in some ways, even these government handouts are disproportionately helpful to people who are better off financially. For example, marriage comes with breaks on estate taxes but if you don’t have much of an estate, that’s not such a great perk. Same for Social Security benefits, which help married people in more ways than they help single people. But if you work at a job for which no Social Security benefits are accrued, that’s not much help, either.
#4 There is little evidence that the teens of single mothers end up better off emotionally or physically if their mothers get married than if they stay single.
It is time for the moralizing and scolding to end. Those who truly care about the disproportionate levels of poverty among single mothers need to think of better solutions than just telling them to get married.
[Note: Thanks to Beth O’Donnell for the heads-up about one of the articles about marriage-promotion and poverty.]
Young pregnant woman image available from Shutterstock.