Public Policy Forum Blog

Wedding Bells are Tolling Less in Milwaukee: Considering the Implications and Misconceptions Related to Poverty

Milwaukee has marriage on the mind – or, the lack thereof, that is. Two February articles in the Journal Sentinel – a column by Patrick McIlheran and, most recently, a news story, have highlighted declining rates of marriage. The news story describes how, in 1980, there were 8.7 marriages for every 1,000 people state-wide. Today Milwaukee County shows 5.2 marriages per 1,000 people, and Waukesha County is only slightly higher at 5.5 marriages per 1,000 people. McIlheran notes that 58% of Milwaukee’s children live in single parent homes.

Since marriage is associated with a variety of positive outcomes, proponents believe that policy makers should promote marriage as a solution to problems facing low-income children. Programs funded by Bush administration marriage promotion grants aim to increase and support marriage in a way that builds relationship skills, at times with added strategies to increase income. While proponents see a clear link between marriage and poverty, others find little research-based evidence that an absence of marriage is the factor causing child poverty. When it comes to marriage as a policy issue, the “association is not causation” chant from your statistics 101 class has never been more relevant. In considering marriage’s potential association with poverty, it is helpful to consider the following:

  • Is it about lack of a ring, or family disruption? Do we want our public policies to encourage children to grow up in households with married people, which may mean step-parents, or do we prefer policies geared toward encouraging situations in which children grow up in households with both of their birth parents, which may mean unmarried cohabitation? Neither scenario necessarily spells success or disaster, but research by Sara McLanahan in The American Prospect in 2002 identified growing up with birth parents as more vital to positive child outcomes. Her research suggests that it is more prudent to consider family disruption rather than the low rates of marriage, and concludes, “What matters for children is not whether their parents are married when they are born, but whether their parents live together while the children are growing up.”

  • What about quality? If we are to promote marriage, can we do that in a way that also dissuades people from staying in abusive marriages, and offers strategies to guard against making a bad match in the first place (i.e., programs that might end up advising “Don’t marry this one”)? Researchers Karen Edin and Joanna Reed published a study in The Future of Children in 2005 that found the quality of many (but obviously not all) romantic relationships of low-income people to be of low quality. In their study, low-income people cited domestic abuse, infidelity, and substance abuse as common reasons for break-ups. (The federal Healthy Marriage Initiative stresses that it only promotes healthy, nonabusive marriages.)
  • Where’s the economic payoff? Are we fully facing the economic and social barriers to marriage for low-income people that make it more complicated than wanting to get married or valuing the institution of marriage? Edin and Reed agree that it’s not about needing to value marriage. Their research concludes 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.” Some couples must overcome unemployment or underemployment, criminal records, and complicated blended family structures.
  • Association is not causation . . . but it could drain a budget. It may be a good idea to keep marriage promotion programs as one component in a multi-front assault on poverty that also contains more traditional efforts. However, we must do so with our eyes open to the limitations: there is a lack of convincing evidence that growing up in a single-parent home or with unmarried parents causes poverty. On the other hand, there is much evidence proving that other things do cause poverty. Dialogue on this issue should include the question: should our tax money go to promoting something that, when absent, is only associated with, but not necessarily causing, the poverty problem?

While marriage deserves to be on the radar screen when discussing poverty in Milwaukee and surrounding areas, the complex task of marriage promotion is easier said than done. The recent news stories on low marriage rates and the high numbers of single parent homes in Milwaukee underscore the continuing need for a host of community efforts to support healthy and stable families for children.