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Can marriage reduce poverty? Marriage rates among the poor have dramatically declined since the '60s

Published: Saturday, Sept. 29 2012 5:09 p.m. MDT

Kelsey Lemmon shops for her wedding dress and a veil. Some women are delaying marriage because they can't afford it.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

NEWARK, N.J. — Although they've yet to set a date, Gata Negrra and her partner Ronald Moore of Newark like to brainstorm ideas for their wedding. "We're big geeks when it comes to thinking of the stuff we'd like to do," Negrra said. "We've thought of doing an anime theme or a Pirates of the Caribbean party."

But right now marriage feels impossible for the couple, who have been together for five years and have three children between them. "We could just go to city hall," Negrra said, "but I want (our marriage) to feel like a celebration."

Negra doesn't have anything opulent in mind. "I know there are people who spend $1,000 on a wedding and get something really nice," she said. Even that feels like an impossible sum for the couple whose combined income is so low they qualify for subsidized housing that puts their monthly rent at $157.

Negrra and Moore are representative of a growing trend among low-income minority couples. Since the 1960s, there has been a dramatic decline in marriages among this group of Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's newly released 2011 Population Survey.

Only 70 to 75 percent of African-American women can expect to get married in their lifetime, compared to 91 percent of white women, according to research by Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

One of the most commonly cited reasons for delaying marriage by women in this group is they just can't afford it. This has led some experts to argue that declining marriages are a result of poverty. But according to Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, low-income couples would be better off if they just got married. Poverty isn't the cause of declining marriage, he claims, it is the effect of forgoing matrimony.

Marriage and money

Reality television programs perpetuate the idea that it is possible to have a wedding with all the trimmings for next to nothing. But for a bride who wants the white dress and flowers and a reception there are some hard numbers. For example, wedding dresses don't come cheap. "You don't get a traditional wedding gown for less than $300," said Stacy Van Dusen, owner of Fantasy Bridal in Taylorsville. "We usually advise brides to spend about 10 percent of their overall budget on a dress," she said. That means even if a bride is able to snag a gown for $300, the wedding is going to set the couple back $3,000.

Although weddings can be expensive, most couples come out ahead after marriage, Caplan said. "Being single is more expensive than being married," he added. "Picture two singles living separately. If they marry, they sharply cut their total housing costs. They cut the total cost of furniture, appliances, fuel and health insurance. Even groceries get cheaper: think Costco," he wrote on his blog Econlog. The impact of these savings are especially pronounced among the poor, according to Charles Murray, author of "Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010."

But marriage does more than just cut expenses, according to Caplan. It actually raises couples' incomes, according to data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Even when accounting for IQ, education, experience and race, married men earn about 40 percent more than comparable single men. Married women on the other hand earn about 10 percent less than comparable single women. "From a couple's point of view, that's a big net bonus," Caplan said.

Diminishing rates

So if marriage improves a couple's bottom line, why are dwindling marriage rates concentrated among the poor? One explanation is that "disadvantaged men and women highly value marriage but believe they are currently unable to meet the high standards of relationship quality and financial stability they believe are necessary to sustain a marriage and avoid divorce," according to Kathryn Edin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University.

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