Marriage as a Cure for Poverty? Social Science through a “Family Values” Lens is the second in a two-part series by political scientist Jean Hardisty. Part One of the series, Pushed to the Altar: The Right Wing Roots of Marriage Promotion, explores the intellectual roots and the implementation of the George W. Bush administration’s campaign to promote marriage as a cure for poverty.*
This report, Part Two, examines conservative marriage promoters’ reliance on questionable research that supports their ideological agenda. Dr. Hardisty critiques the flawed social science behind marriage promotion and exposes the dissemination of ideas by rightist think tanks and movement intellectuals who make dubious—if often influential— claims and point selectively to research that backs those claims.
The U.S. political Right has pursued a campaign to restore the traditional family and claim it as the dominant achievement of men and women in a values- oriented society. This family model often includes a value that places Christianity at the center of family life. With that model in mind, rightists see the poverty often associated with single mothers and their children as the result of a “cultural deficit” on the part of poor communities. They argue that, with the entire free market apparatus available to any American, poverty can only be explained as a personal failing. Further, according to the Right, the failure of low-income women to marry and/or stay married to the father of their children results in an array of social problems, many caused by their “fatherless” children.
The Right promotes these ideas through an echo chamber of pundits, talk radio hosts, newspaper journalists, academics, and think tank researchers that has swept public opinion with a message of old time values. This report reviews the work of the core group of conservative scholars who write in favor of marriage as the cure for poverty: Maggie Gallagher, Director of the Manassas, Virginia-based Institute for Marriage and Public Policy; Allan C. Carlson, Director of the conservative Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society and former Director of the Rockford Institute; Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow on Welfare and Family Issues at The Heritage Foundation; Lawrence Mead, Professor of Politics at New York University; and Judith Wallerstein, founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition.
Their research, combined with conservative marriage and fatherhood movement organizing, promotes the idea that marriage is a good thing for every heterosexual citizen. As a result, some states now dip into scarce federal TANF block grants for welfare recipients to fund marriage and fatherhood programs. These programs are also widespread in the military, bringing a rightist perspective to social issues that have little to do with the national defense.
What follows is a summary of the findings in Marriage as a Cure for Poverty: Social Science Through a “Family Values” Lens.
One of the Right’s core arguments for the benefits of marriage violates a fundamental tenet of social science research: using the correlation of two variables to prove causality.
Rightists argue that, because married women and their children are better off in many ways than are single mothers and their children, the reason for the correlation between marriage and prosperity is the fact of marriage. That is, they assert that because two characteristics of welfare recipients co-occur, one is caused by the other. This is a logical flaw. It draws a conclusion from a single association between two variables that one factor is the cause of the other. Research indeed associates marriage with an increased family wage and finds a positive relationship between greater job stability and higher levels of marriage. But the converse is also true: greater job instability is associated with lower levels of marriage.
In arguing that marriage is the cure for women and children who are poor, rightists employ the single causation fallacy.
It is a fundamental rule of social science that to prove causality, you must consider all factors that might cause the phenomenon being studied. The long list of factors that affect low-income singlemother households, such as poor nutrition, poor housing, poor health care, lack of child care, race and gender discrimination, or lack of jobs, are rarely considered by conservative scholars. They identify marriage as the independent variable in family prosperity, and stop there.
For instance, Lawrence Mead and Robert Rector, among others, argue that nonmarital births are an epidemic that is destroying the fabric of society and causing poverty, drug abuse, crime, school failure, and the collapse of the family. This makes the need for government programs to promote marriage seem even more urgent to traditionalists.
The assertion that liberal antipoverty programs create dependency and discourage individual initiative has been influential, although it doesn’t withstand careful scrutiny.
Rightwing scholars seek to undercut liberalism’s approach to poverty which tends see it as rooted in the economic and social systems that support discrimination by race and gender and marginalization by class, and which sees poverty as itself a cause of many challenges faced by low-income families. The rightist scholars argue liberal programs that address poverty create “dependence”—a vague term that implies an unwillingness to take charge of one’s life and accept responsibility for it. This case against liberalism was carefully built, using anecdotes and exaggeration to paint welfare recipients as made dependent by liberal programs.
For instance, teenagers, it was alleged, had babies in order to “go on welfare,” thus assuring their indefinite poverty and dependence. But teenage motherhood had already begun declining in the early 1990s, even before federal legislation denied increased benefits to “welfare” recipients who mothered additional children. Moreover, in contrast to the Right’s characterization of unwed mothers as single parents, in 1992 one-third of unwed births were among cohabiting couples (i.e., two-parent households). Today that figure has risen to one-half.
Social science research is equivocal, at best, about the benefits of marriage in reducing poverty.
In fact, for a number of reasons, pushing lowincome women and men to marry might actually decrease a low-income woman’s chances of rising out of poverty and can increase her chances of experiencing domestic violence. Yet this policy has become the centerpiece of welfare reform, foisting on welfare recipients an unproven and questionable “solution” to their poverty in order to get them off the welfare rolls.
Rightists’ claims that women who are married are safer than those who are not rely on anecdotal evidence that fails to meet scholarly standards.
This assertion, which has been made by Robert Rector and other researchers at the influential Heritage Foundation, should be backed up by hard research and should also take into account “hidden” domestic violence that occurs within marriage, when the woman involved is unable or unwilling to go to the police.
Rightists minimize or outright deny racism’s significant role in creating and maintaining poverty.
Racism’s role in subjecting people to poverty is denied by scholars such as Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, who argue that de jure racial discrimination is now illegal, that institutional racism cannot be “proven,” and that African Americans have made great progress in the past thirty years. Ignoring the role of persistent structural racism creates political “permission” for both the federal and state governments to push women of color off the welfare rolls and to subject them to marriage programs, often offered by religious organizations.
Studies citing the effectiveness of marriage promotion in reducing poverty fail to control for economic class.
There are no social scientific studies showing marriage promotion programs “work” as a poverty fighter. Even when marriage promotion programs are classified as having “worked,” that conclusion is often based on the experiences of middle-class couples.
The rightist fatherhood movement relies on biased scholarship to support its assertion that a family is not complete without the presence of a father.
Such scholars’ claims for the benefits of the presence of a father ignore the institutional and structural factors that make it difficult for low-income women of color to maintain a prosperous household. Rather than advocating for higher and more equitable wages and access to education for low-income women, these scholars argue for low-income women to marry and become dependent on a man. This man is always portrayed as a good provider and father figure, making low-income women appear even more immoral and irrational for opting not to marry.
Those who promote marriage as a cure for poverty rely on questionable findings regarding the affects of divorce on children.
The influence of divorce on children is a highly contested area of research, with the strongest scientific evidence challenging the work of Judith Wallerstein, which suggested severe long-term affects on those whose parents divorced. Wallerstein, whose work is widely referenced by marriage promotion advocates, used a very small sample while more recent work by E. Mavis Hetherington looking at 2500 children found that a substantial number of divorced women and some daughters were strengthened by it and “about 75 to 80 percent of adults and children show few serious long-term problems in adjustment.”
Rightist scholars seldom examine the compelling reasons why many low-income women don’t marry.
These scholars consider childbearing outside marriage and children fathered by multiple partners to be “moral” decisions and blame low-income women for their “immoral” behaviors, while ignoring a range of barriers to marriage. A partial list of such barriers includes disproportionately high rates of incarceration among low-income men; scarce jobs, low wages, and unstable employment for low-income women andmen; and increasing acceptance of single motherhood in the larger society. These variables suggest broader reasons for the limited appeal of marriage to many heterosexual low-income women. Women seeking to marry other women face particularly severe legal, cultural, and economic barriers.
Studies show low-income women want to marry only if the marriage will truly stabilize their families and lift them out of poverty. Most are looking for employed wage-earning men, just as most lowincome men are looking for employed women.
Some marriage promotion analysts inject their conservative theological preference for “male headship” into debates over the best policy options for reducing poverty.
Analysts such as David Blankenhorn and Maggie Gallagher borrow from ideas dominant among conservative evangelicals to argue for “male headship,” a concept associated with conservative Christianity which not only assigns ultimate dominance to the father/husband, but also argues that a family does not really exist without his presence.
In pursuit of their ideological goals, rightist scholars risk violating the social scientist’s responsibility not to deceive or manipulate his or her research subjects.
There is among most social scientists an agreement that social science should not be used to deceive or manipulate the subjects being studied. Scholars attracted to marriage promotion schemes should refrain from justifying government programs that manipulate low-income women to conform to the Right’s ideological agenda.
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