It’s a well-known fact that one way not to spend your life poor is to get married before you have children. Your children are almost certain to be better-off, too, as kids who grow up with both their biological parents in the home do better in school, have fewer problems with the law, and in the long run fare better economically than kids raised in single-parent homes.
Liberals and movement feminists just hate these conclusions, because they suggest that women need men, that a free-for-all sex life is not conducive to long-run prosperity, and that fathers aren’t patriarchal monsters after all but have positive effects on their offspring’s outlooks. So the left has been fighting and making fun of Bush Administration programs design to encourage and shore up marriage. Never mind that, especially among African-Americans but increasingly among whites and Hispanics as well, out-of-wedlock births have soared, which has condemned increasing numbers of children to lifelong poverty, despair, and, often, crime. The movement feminists just shrug: These unwed moms shun marriage because they know that men are evil and marriage is a Bad Thing.
That explanation has worn a bit thin lately, so two sociologists in Philadelphia, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, have come up with a different theory: Poor women have children out of wedlock because they think marriage is a Good Thing. So good, indeed, that they don’t want to marry any man they know. That’s the thesis of Edin’s and Kefalas’s new book, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Ahead of Marriage. It’s sort of the converse of Elizabeth Taylor’s theory of marriage: She thought it was such a Good Thing that she married seven different men. Edin and Kefalas write in the Washington Post:
“For poor single mothers, marriage has not lost its value. Quite the opposite: They revere it too much to sully it with a foolish union.”
“Instead of a rejection of marriage, we found a deep respect for it among many young mothers, who told us that getting married was their ultimate life ambition. While they acknowledge that putting children before marriage is not the ideal way of doing things, they’re not about to risk going through life childless while waiting for Mr. Right. They build their dreams around children: As one 20-year-old mother explained as she watched her toddler, ‘I wanted to have a baby. It wasn’t, like, because everybody else had a baby. . . . I wanted somebody to take care of.'”
I’m willing to grant that most of the men these women hook up with (and for that 20-year-old with the “toddler,” it was clearly a guy she met at age 17) are, as the women themselves say, not exactly husband material. Edin and Kefalas write:
“Though about eight out of 10 unmarried new mothers say they hope to marry their children’s father some day, less than one in seven manage to do so by the time their child turns 3. The story behind these discouraging statistics is more than a lack of money. Women described to us relationships that were plagued by their partner’s drug and alcohol addictions, criminal behavior, frequent run-ins with the law, chronic infidelity and violent behavior. They felt there was little hope for a marriage to survive when, as one woman said, ‘You just can’t trust them anymore, can’t get a decent man that you really, really trust.'”
Okay. But I’m not as willing as Edin and Kefalas to imagine that these low-income unwed moms are just middle-class girls with high aspirations who weren’t lucky enough to meet guys whose aspirations were equally high. I can’t help wondering if some of the fault for the pickle these gals are in doesn’t lie with their own poor decisions as well as those of the young men.
For example, that 20-year-old with the toddler. If she, like the other young women the two sociologists interviewed, wants to feel “financially secure” before she marries anyone, how exactly does she intend to go about achieving this state? When she gave birth at age 18, what happened to any plans she might have had for school, career, and the opportunity to meet a social circle of marriageable men so that she could realize that life-ambition of getting wed? And even a middle-class single mom with a 2-year-old had better have an awfully cute 2-year-old–and be rather cute herself–in order to find a man willing to raise it as though it were his own.
Here’s another question: If a man isn’t “Mr. Right” enough for you to want to marry, why is he “Mr. Right” for the purpose of giving half his genes to the most valuable person in your life, your child–and then leaving that child to cry himself to sleep for the father he never knew?
To their credit, Edin and Kefalas seem to like the Bush administration’s marriage-promotion programs (although they also seem to want a vast cash-handout program for the poor as an accompaniment), and I myself hope the programs will teach young people of both sexes something about what marriage and parenthood are really all about. One way that women can turn men into husband material is to give them incentives to be husbands–such as saying “no” to the thing that makes randy boys into feckless fathers at age 18. That’s what those girls’ grandmothers and great-grandmothers did–backed by fathers, brothers, and all the rest of society. That–and not a bigger welfare state–is the social change we desperately need so that poor women can prosper economically and find decent husbands like their middle-class sisters