SALT LAKE CITY — Faced with declining marriage rates and higher divorce rates among low-income couples more than those more economically secure, federal and state governments have poured effort and money into skills-based or values-based programs that teach the importance of marriage.
While studies repeatedly confirm that marriage matters for wellbeing of couples and their children, new research suggests that low-income families don't need to be convinced. They already believe in marriage, perhaps more even than those with higher incomes. But they face challenges that such interventions don't impact.
Instead, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles believe "efforts to save low-income marriages should directly confront the economic and social realities these couples face," such as money problems or substance abuse. Their study is online in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
The Pew Research Center last December said barely half of U.S. adults are married, a 5 percent drop from 2009 to 2010. In 1960, 72 percent of adults 18 and older were married. Pew also found, though, that most single people hope to marry some day.
The UCLA study shows people with lower incomes (up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline, based on income and family size) not only place as high a value on marriage as those with higher incomes (400 percent of poverty and above), but they have nearly identical romantic standards — not unrealistically high standards, as some have suggested to explain decline in marriage in their socioeconomic range.
The study was based on phone surveys of 6,012 people. Most were in Florida, with smaller samples in California, New York and Texas to hit all regions of the country. Just over half of respondents were married.
"What was a little bit surprising was that on some of the measures, low-income people were more conservative, with more traditional views," Thomas E. Trail, postdoctoral scholar in UCLA's department of psychology and study lead author, told the Deseret News.
The poor were less likely to approve of divorce than higher-income subjects. They also placed more value on economic stability in marriage, something they were not achieving. Both income groups had similar "relationship" challenges, such as communication. And across income lines, all agreed that "a happy, healthy marriage is one of the most important things in life" and that "people who have children together ought to be married."
Where they varied was in external stressors like finances and problem behaviors like substance abuse or infidelity.
Those are the types of barriers that should be tackled to improve marriage rates and decrease divorce among poor people, Trail said.
Instead, according to the study, public education programs touting the benefits of marriage assume that there is something wrong with how low-income groups view marriage: that they lack traditional family-oriented values or that their standards for relationships are unrealistic." The study co-author, Benjamin Karney, said the federal government has spent $1 billion dollars on initiatives to strenghten marriages of low-income people that may not target the right issues to affect change.
"We found no difference on things like communication, chores, being a parent, spending time together. ... What they did report problems with was money and its effect on the relationship, drinking and drug use," Trail said.
"Given that there's not a lot of differences between (income levels) with relationship issues, we argue that helping to relieve these stresses would do as much or more to help improve marriage, in terms of helping couples do better. If you take stresses out, you can change outcomes," Trail said.
Not everyone thinks government should promote marriage, but it does, Trail said, prompted in part by the cost of government safety net programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Particularly for women on the edge financially, divorce is one of the leading predictors of entry into poverty; promoting marriage is one way to counter that. But if that's the goal, he said, focus should be on programs that make a difference.
Losing a job or struggling to pay a loan can be a real strain on marriage, said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, who was not involved in the study. Still, the norm that used to sustain marriages in low-income communities has changed and couples are less likely to stick with a marriage when they encounter an economic problem or when a spouse has a drinking problem. But the culture has changed, too.
"The idea that it's simply economic or social problems doesn't adequately address the fact that there has been shift in culture that makes wanting to stay married less likely to see them through," he said.
Across income brackets, Wilcox noted, marriage aids family wellbeing. "I think most kids long to know and be known by their own married parents and to love and be loved by their own married parents. In cases where there's an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional parent, it may be better not to have that parent on the scene, but in most cases it's better to figure out a way to be married before you have children and once you have children. Research suggests that kids are served by not having parents get divorced. In most cases, (couples) need to figure out a way to navigate the challenges."
"It's not all gloom and doom," Trail said. "Some states that are implementing programs are not only trying to help people with their marriage interactions with one another, but if you need drug treatment, they provide it.... Some states are better at addressing problems, but that should be the norm, rather than the exception" of program that try to impact marriage.
Unlike earlier studies that focused on low-income "subsets" like unmarried mothers or parents, the UCLA study is reportedly the first to look across income levels to compare "values, standards and experiences" in marriage.
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