While the federal government is spending about $1 billion to promote the value of marriage among the poor, that money could be better spent elsewhere, according to psychologists at the University of California-Los Angeles.
They just released a report that shows that poor people actually hold more traditional values toward marriage and divorce than people with moderate and higher incomes.
“A lot of government policy is based on the assumption that low-income people hold less traditional views about marriage,” said Benjamin Karney, a UCLA professor of psychology and senior author of the study.
“However, the different income groups do not hold dramatically different views about marriage and divorce — and when the views are different, they are different in the opposite direction from what is commonly assumed. People of low income hold values that are at least as traditional toward marriage and divorce, if not more so.”
Karney, who is co-director of the Relationship Institute at UCLA, added: “The United States is spending money teaching people about the value of marriage and family, and we are saying, congratulations, the battle has been won.”
While many point to an increased rate of lower-income women having babies out of wedlock as evidence that poor people value marriage less, Karney says that’s just not so.
“Why are low-income women postponing marriage but having babies?” Karney said. “Because they don’t want to get divorced. They think if they marry their current partner, they are likely to get divorced — and couples that have financial strain are much more likely to have marital difficulties. It’s like these women have been reading the scientific journals about marriage — their intuition is absolutely correct.”
He said many of these women have no models for a successful marriage. Also, they do not trust their financial and family future with the men they know.
“However, they know they can raise a child,” he said. “They may have been raised by a single mother, and people all around them were raised by single mothers. They see single-parent families that succeed, and they see the role of mother is valued.”
For the latest study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, the researchers surveyed 6,012 people — 29.4 percent of low income, 26 percent of moderate income, and 34.7 percent of high income status.
In the sample, 4,508 people lived in Florida, 500 in California, 502 in New York and 502 in Texas. The results from the four states were very comparable, the researchers noted. The research was based on phone surveys that lasted an average of 27 minutes each.
The participants were asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements.
The researchers found that lower-income people held slightly more traditional values on the following statements than people with higher incomes:
- “Divorce can be a reasonable solution to an unhappy marriage.”
- “When there are children in the family, parents should stay married even if they no longer love each other.”
- “It’s better for a family if the man earns a living and the woman takes care of the family.”
- “A husband and wife should be of the same race or ethnic group.”
The values among all groups were equally traditional on the following statements:
- “A happy, healthy marriage is one of the most important things in life.”
- “Children do better when their parents are married.”
- “People who have children together should be married.”
Low-income people actually hold much more traditional attitudes about divorce and are less likely to see divorce as a reasonable solution to an unhappy marriage, according to Karney.
And low-income women aren’t becoming single parents because they don’t value marriage, the researcher said.
“They care about marriage so much that they are unwilling to do it the wrong way,” he said. “In their communities, motherhood and marriage are two separate things. Girls who think they have somewhere to go in life don’t get pregnant; girls who think they have nowhere to go are less careful about contraception.”
Karney noted that an affluent 18-year-old girl does not want to get pregnant because that would interfere with her plans for college, her career and a future husband. A poor 18-year-old doesn’t see herself becoming a lawyer or even a college graduate.
“But if she becomes a mother, she gets respect, purpose and someone to love her — and she doesn’t need to be married to do that,” he said. “She knows she can be a mom. She doesn’t know if she can be married forever.”
The best way to lower teen pregnancy rates, he said, is to increase social mobility. Government money would be better spent helping low-income people with the day-to-day challenges in their lives, he said.
“There is a lot you can do with a billion dollars to promote marriage, including helping people with child care and transportation; that is not where the money has been spent,” Karney said.
“Almost all of that money has been spent on educational curricula, which is a narrow approach, based on false assumptions. Communication and emotional connection are the same among low-income people as in more affluent groups. Their unique needs are not about relationship education. None of the data support the current policy of teaching relationships values and skills. Low-income people have concrete, practical problems making ends meet.”
The data, collected in 2003, predate the current economic recession, but Karney said he suspects the findings would apply to an even larger extent today than when he collected the data.