The Fragile Families and Child Well-being Survey has been conducted jointly by Princeton and Columbia universities for decades. It tracks at-risk families across years. The survey shows that most low-income young women dream of having a husband, children, a minivan, and a house in the suburbs “with a white picket fence.” They just don’t take the path in life that leads to those goals.
Instead of getting married before becoming pregnant, they tend to have the child first. Marriage, in their mind, comes later.
“Marriage is regarded as an important ceremony that will celebrate one’s eventual arrival in the middle class rather than as a vital pathway that leads upward to the attainment of middle-class status,” as Rector puts it. For these women, “the idea that you should carefully select a suitable partner and diligently build a successful relationship with him before conceiving a child is a foreign concept.”
An important step toward changing this attitude would be to reduce the penalties against marriage that the welfare system imposes. A single mother can receive far more from welfare than if she can if she gets married. So for many low-income couples, marriage means a reduction in government assistance and an overall decline in the couple’s joint income. That’s a clear disincentive.
Lawmakers could also encourage public advertising that promotes the importance of marriage, as well as expand the small “healthy marriage initiative” that’s currently run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2010, only 59 percent of all births in the nation occurred to married couples, down from 93 percent in 1964. The trend lines are definitely running in the wrong direction. Marriage is at risk -- it’s time to save it.