What’s (Not) Wrong With Low-Income Marriages
by David Gibson
“What’s wrong (or not wrong) with low-income marriages” in today’s America?
Finding answers to that question is important not just for society in general but for policymakers, advocacy groups and researchers concerned about the state of marriage in low-income communities, according to psychologists Thomas E. Trail and Benjamin R. Karney.
But answering the question “is not simple,” they say.
Trail and Karney caution against assuming that marriage is valued less by low-income people than those in higher income brackets. That assumption helps to explain why programs designed to strengthen marriages often fail to focus on some of the most important needs of low-income couples, the researchers suggest.
The assumption that the poor “do not value marriage as an institution” has led to federal programs that “promote the value of marriage” to them, they explain. However, Trail and Karney note, their data reveals that lower-income people think “a happy, healthy marriage is one of the most important things in life.”
Karney co-directs The Relationship Institute at the University of California Los Angeles. Trail, recently a postdoctoral scholar working at UCLA with Karney, is now a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation.
They co-authored a report titled “What’s (Not) Wrong With Low-Income Marriages,” just published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Two contrasting “portraits” of low-income couples are examined in the report. The first portrait depicts people who “marry less, divorce more and have children out of wedlock more than higher income families.”
The second portrait depicts people who “hold largely traditional family values, do not have unrealistic standards for marriage and do not experience more problems with basic relationship” skills than do other couples – with interpersonal communication, for example, or problem-solving.
Can these contrasting images be reconciled?
Statistically speaking, “it is clear that low-income marriages do experience worse outcomes” than others, according to the report. But it questions those who conclude that “declining marriage rates, increased divorce and the prevalence of one-parent families among lower income populations” stand as evidence that marriage lacks value in the eyes of the poor.
The report speculates, in fact, that greater “exposure” in this group to “the consequences of family dissolution” and “the negative effects of divorce” actually may strengthen “positive attitudes toward marriage and traditional family life,” rather than weaken them.
The report’s co-authors wonder whether low-income people may on the one hand “idealize marriage,” while at the same time fearing “that the marriages they desire” are unattainable and thus accepting “other family forms as inevitable.”
Whatever the case, current research “strongly suggests that the culture of marriage is just as strong among low-income populations as it is among those with higher incomes,” the report says.
Confronting Other Realities
True enough, the rate of new marriages has declined and divorce rates are higher in lower income communities. But “whatever the reasons for the increased vulnerability of low-income marriages, low-income populations do not value marriage less than those with higher incomes,” the Trail-Karney report says.
In fact, it concludes, “people with lower incomes experience relationship vulnerabilities that fall largely outside the realm of the relationship itself – and outside the realm of most interventions that aim to improve marriages.”
In light of that, efforts by policymakers to strengthen marriages are going to need to confront directly “the economic and social realities these couples face,” the report says.
It comments, for example, that “whatever bolsters the financial prospects of low-income couples may remove barriers to marriage and/or forestall divorce for couples struggling with financial problems.”
Trail and Karney found “some evidence that low-income marriages face particular problems with money, substance abuse, infidelity and friends – problems that are not targeted by most of the current federal marital education programs.”
Interventions designed to aid couples “may need to expand their focus to how couples negotiate the demands and temptations of their circumstances,” the report says.
“Some state programs,” it adds, “have already instituted this type of comprehensive intervention program to improve marriage, incorporating drug and alcohol treatment as well as job training into their programs,” the report notes.
But “current research suggests that this type of intervention should be the norm rather than the exception,” it says.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.