Putting the Carriage Before Marriage

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Pundits and policymakers like to talk about the cause-and-effect of single motherhood among the poor, but it’s rare that these women actually get to speak for themselves. Dr. Kathryn Edin, associate professor of sociology at Penn, and St. Joseph’s University sociologist Maria Kefalas interviewed 162 low-income mothers for their book, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (University of California Press). First, they immersed themselves in the daily life of low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. “I signed on with a group of public-health nurses visiting mothers who had just given birth and met some moms who were clearly shooting-up with their babies right there in the crib,” Edin says. “I met some exceptional moms, and I met some moms who were homeless and living in abandoned buildings … I was in a lot of local churches and food pantries. The grocery-store parking lot was also a great place to hang out.”

Edin sat down with Gazette associate editor Susan Frith in July to talk about their findings:

While researching this book, you moved with your family to East Camden for two and a half years. Did you have any reservations about raising children in a neighborhood where you’d come across “the occasional used condom … or tiny, plastic heroin bag,” and where the threat of gun violence was always present?

I probably wouldn’t [do it] now. But I had been researching single mothers who were in and out of housing projects in Chicago and several cities for 10 years or so, and I never really felt personally threatened.

We did live a block and a half from a huge [public] housing complex that was really dangerous. My husband drove a Sunday school van for a local church we joined, and whenever he pulled up in front of the housing project, somebody was out there, saying, “Do you want some weed?”

“No,” he’d say. “I’m just here to pick up some Sunday school kids.”

And in the Sunday school class I taught, two of the dads got killed in the space of a week. So there were all these incidents that happened around us.

Mainly I think the biggest effect was a real feeling of depression. The Cherry Hill Mall was mecca—and I hate malls, but just going there, just having clean space that wasn’t fraught with tension was such an amazing counterpoint to our experience.

When we moved to the Philadelphia side of the river and put our daughter in this swanky private school in Chestnut Hill that we no longer go to, the first thing she wanted to do on the playground was challenge other kids to fights. It was a good thing we got her out of [her old neighborhood] when we did.

But living in Camden really led us to figure out what we should be asking this larger group of women we wanted to talk to more systematically. A lot of times we rush into research about something when we don’t know enough and we haven’t shed our own biases to figure out the appropriate questions to ask.

What is the received wisdom about poor women and single motherhood that your study results challenge?

There are three main ideas in the literature: One is that marriages aren’t happening because low-income men can no longer find stable jobs. The second one is that it is the welfare system breaking up the family by providing an alternative husband to the mom and discouraging marriage. And the third idea is that women are now doing so well that they don’t need men. By the end of the 1990s, it was pretty evident that none of them were plausible explanations for what was going on.

[What we found is that] marriage is seen as sort of the ultimate thing you do in your 40s, once you’ve made it economically, [whereas] having children is a normal part of early adulthood. People were saying, “Well we want to marry, but first of all we’ve got to have that white picket fence.” They were interested in establishing their own economic independence so that when they went into a relationship they could claim equal power and they could have insurance if things went bad.

That was very new. That was nowhere in the literature. And it makes sense in a situation where poor men do have more traditional sex-role expectations … [and] so many of them act in ways that are so deeply problematic, with the abuse and violence and infidelity.

But divorce itself is frowned upon.

There are a lot of contradictions in this story. Divorce definitely carries a much higher stigma than non-marital birth because it’s making a mockery of a sacred institution, but it’s also showing yourself to be a fool because you trusted this guy. You also put your relationship up on a pedestal for everyone to see and you weren’t really ready. We had fascinating cases where women got married when they were poor and unstable, and some of their relatives really were coming down on them [and saying], “This is irresponsible,” even though they had three kids together.

Everybody pretty much assumed prior to this [study] that the poor rejected marriage. We found—for a lot of feminists who read the book—almost a galling salience for the institution of marriage. But they were redefining marriage on their own terms. Although they would never claim to be feminists, they were claiming gender equality in a pretty profound and powerful way.

Many policy discussions are centered on the idea that if poor women would just postpone motherhood, they would be a lot better off.

There is no statistical evidence to show that these women would be better off economically; their prospects are so bad anyway. However, I think that women should be encouraged to wait longer. Number one, there is some evidence that kids do better behaviorally and developmentally when moms are a little older. Second, what’s really so troubling about this book [is] this chapter on what my editor calls “the crummy boyfriends”—their cheating, domestic violence, drinking, and drug abuse, and how this really wreaks havoc on the family. If you look at the criminology or delinquency literature, what you see is that the older men get, the less of this behavior they engage in.

[And] demographers have shown us that lower-income men take into their late 20s to really enter stable career trajectories. It’s almost a decade longer than their grandfathers did, partly because of the way the labor market now works and partly because of the way our cities now work.

If women want stable partners and to parent their children with the father of their children, they really need older partners [and] they’re going to need to be older themselves to get those older partners.

As a policy note, the marriage-promotion agenda of the Bush administration starts way too late, in my view. By the time a young couple has a baby together … their problems are already pretty well forged. Teaching people relationship skills is a good idea, but it probably should be done in junior high or high school.

A number of the women you interviewed told you how having babies turned their lives around. Is there evidence to back that up?

That’s an interesting question. Part of the reason I think that you don’t see differences in economic outcomes between women who have children young and women who don’t, despite the incredible hardships involved, is that babies may be getting moms together on some level.

In many stories we did really see that. However, it’s more of a gauntlet than a sure-fire recipe for do-it-yourself rehab. And some [moms] fail miserably. That’s why the open child-protection case files in cities like Philadelphia are as high as they are.

You mention in your book that in 1950, 1 in 20 babies were born to unmarried mothers. Now that figure is more than 1 in 3. Do you see any turnaround in this trend?

I think there’s evidence that things have leveled off. In fact, in the late 1990s, when the economy was really strong—one of the few economic recoveries that really affected workers at the lower end—more children were living with two parents.

Marital instability will probably continue to remain high because we have very high standards for our marriages, but marriage is a real cultural ideal that’s touted by the rich and poor alike. A little more than 7 in 10 women who have an unmarried birth will eventually get married. Those marriages are typically not enormously stable, but some of them last and become exactly what these women seem to want.

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