Marriage for Low-Income Americans is Still Worth Fighting For

While marrying was long seen as the threshold to adulthood, today it is perceived more as its pinnacle, a status symbol following education and financial independence. And as wealthier Millennials delay marriage, their poorer counterparts struggle to achieve these "prerequisites."
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Co-authored by Chelsea Cooper

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage!

Today's marriage landscape has shifted -- particularly among the working-class. There's still plenty of love and babies, but wedding rings have grown rarer. Yet many low-income Americans still desire marriage, according to Andrew Cherlin in his article, "The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage," published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

While marrying was long seen as the threshold to adulthood, today it is perceived more as its pinnacle, a status symbol following education and financial independence. And as wealthier Millennials delay marriage, their poorer counterparts struggle to achieve these "prerequisites."

Meanwhile, they are cohabiting and having children as early as their parents did. Among first-time moms, 94 percent of college graduates are married, vs. only 57 percent of those who never attended college, according to sociologist Kathryn Edin. In 2008, 48 percent of less-educated adults were married versus 64 percent of the college-educated: a 16 percent gap, according to Pew Research. Marriage has become a "middle-class luxury item."

It's not that low-income Americans have discarded marriage. They were as likely as high-income respondents to agree that, "A happy, healthy marriage is one of the most important things in life" and "People who have children together ought to be married." They were less likely to see divorce as "a reasonable solution to an unhappy marriage" or to affirm that "It is okay for couples who are not married to live together," according to Trail and Karney in their article, "What's (Not) Wrong With Low-Income Marriages" published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

The disconnect between marriage-related values and actions stems largely from concrete obstacles. Sociologist Kathryn Edin argues that the working class value both parenting and marriage, but see the former as more attainable.

Due to everyday economic pressures, working-class Americans' fear of entrapment and failure keeps them from marrying. However, practical assistance could let more people enjoy the many advantages of a strong marriage.

They're afraid they can't afford marriage...

Low-income respondents place a higher value on a potential spouse's financial stability. They often associate married life with a certain standard of living, and everyone knows weddings aren't cheap. I know an engaged cohabiting couple with a newborn; they haven't set a wedding date because he's just starting out in a blue-collar industry. He wants to wait until he can give her "the married life she deserves," which might take a while.

Plus, unlike most couples, low-income couples often pay higher taxes when married than when cohabiting. Why? Married couples must file taxes jointly. But the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), highly effective at encouraging single moms to work, phases out quickly with a second salary. An unwed mother with one child and an income of $15,000 receives over $3000 via the EITC, regardless of her cohabitating partner's salary. But by marrying someone who earns $25,000, she enters a higher bracket and loses nearly the whole credit. This "marriage penalty" deters many struggling couples.

... But marriage fosters long-term prosperity.

Unlike those with a college degree, less-educated women receive minimal salary boosts by delaying marriage. Especially if they have a child before wedlock, which increases the risk of an "absent or unreliable" father, the cost of parenting usually swallows up their wage increase. In fact, "single-parent households are five times more likely to be poor than two-parent households."

Meanwhile, marriage tends to increase men's annual earnings, regardless of their education level. Marriage reduces poverty. Reforming the EITC to eliminate marriage penalties and protect working-class families could yield long-term savings on Medicaid and welfare.

Couples in higher brackets usually receive a "marriage bonus" by filing taxes jointly. Why on earth would the government penalize low-income married couples?

They're afraid of feeling trapped

Many cohabiting young adults doubt they'll marry their current partner. Some men see few incentives for marriage, since cohabitation offers many of the same immediate benefits and has largely lost its stigma. They fear increased nagging from their wives regarding financial provision and overall behavior.

Some low-income women express fear of more traditional gender roles emerging after marriage. Some also have concerns about domestic violence and substance abuse. "If I'm free to break up anytime," they reason, "he'll behave himself and let me make my own decisions."

Yet while couples can "slide" into cohabitation with little dedication, practical constraints often arise (like babies and shared possessions), leading some couples to stay together longer than they should.

... But marriage improves their odds of health and happiness.

Cohabitation is a poor substitute for marriage's long-term benefits. For example, that very nagging from wives contributes to married men's longer lifespans.

Marriage is more stable than cohabitation. Unmarried parents are much more likely than married parents to break up by the child's fifth birthday, enter a new live-in relationship, and have children with multiple partners. "Children suffer emotionally, academically, and financially when they are thrown onto this kind of relationship carousel," according to the report Knot Yet by the National Marriage Project. Kids thrive best with the consistent presence and involvement of both parents.

Adults, too, are often safer and happier when married. Cohabiting couples compose 48 percent of domestic violence cases, while married couples represent only 19 percent. The commitment of marriage vows, combined with stronger bonds with family and friends, tends to hold spouses accountable to treat each other well. With or without children, married twenty-somethings report less drunkenness, less depression, and more overall satisfaction with their lives than their single and cohabiting peers.

They're afraid of failure

Many low-income Americans fear divorce. Instead of strong marriage role models, they often have painful memories of their parents' failed relationships. Low-income married couples face higher risks of separation and divorce compared to their wealthier peers, and many doubt they can beat the odds. One mother told Edin, "I don't believe in divorce. That's why none of the women in my family are married."

Working-class women are "increasingly giving up on men and marriage," as men "who feel like failures in the job market" hesitate to shoulder family responsibilities, according to the Knot Yet report. Today, a black male high school dropout is more likely to be incarcerated than employed, according to a Brookings Institution's report.

Partially to blame are job training and employment initiatives, which often target single mothers and exclude men. Since the EITC's 1975 implementation, workforce participation has jumped for low-income or less-educated women but "stagnated" around 21 percent among their male counterparts, even declining in some subsets. Government policies "do little right now to encourage work or marriage" among these men, who may conclude shirking responsibility is in their family's best interest, based on a social policy report by Urban Institute.

... But marriage could nudge them toward a path to success.

When disadvantaged men believe they are superfluous, they despair and their community suffers. They need help to become valued employees, fathers, and husbands. Successful programs exist to teach entrepreneurship and money management, for example. An expanded EITC could also incentivize work among childless singles by offsetting reductions in welfare. Promoting employment would position more men to consider marriage.

Research suggests that marriage produces a "responsibility ethic" for men, yielding more income, more time at work, and more time with their family and its community. Though some of that is just correlation, marriage does seem to influence men positively.

With proper support, couples do better. Specifically, couples could benefit from joint mentoring by an older couple volunteering as role models, supporting them as they decide about marriage and helping them build a quality relationship. The government should sponsor successful mentorship programs run by nonprofits and churches.

More than a middle-class luxury

Many low-income families desperately need the mutual trust, financial benefits, and emotional health associated with marriage. Yet the next generation is growing up believing marriage is not for "people like us." Altered policies can promote employment among all demographics so marriage is a viable option for everyone. Without shaming single parents and cohabiting couples, we need to raise awareness of marriage's many advantages, particularly regarding children. Restoring a marriage-friendly environment is worth the fight.

Chelsea Cooper is a graduate student in Comparative and International Education at Lehigh University's College of Education in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Chelsea can be reached at

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