Poor Parents Say They Wish to Marry, Too

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Friday, November 2, 2001

Poor Parents Say They Wish to Marry, Too
Although marriage sometimes appears to have all but disappeared from the cultural landscape of poor families, recent research offers the hopeful news that even poor parents still desire to marry. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, also called “The Survey of New Parents,” surveys unmarried parents and their children over a four-year period. It is designed to provide information about the relationships between unwed parents and the effects of public policy on family formation and child wellbeing. The most recent findings, based on interviews conducted last year in New York City by researchers Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Irwin Garfinkel of Columbia University, may offer cause for cautious optimism about unwed parents’ attitudes about marriage. Nevertheless, a measure of skepticism is appropriate here.

For example, although 88 percent of the fathers surveyed considered that their chances of marrying the mother of their child were greater then 50 percent, a majority reported that they were currently cohabiting with the mother. Cohabiting relationships are much less stable than married relationships and tend to dissolve at a much higher rate than marriages. Marriages that do result from such relationships are also more prone to dissolution than marriages not proceeded by cohabitation. Interestingly, only about 72 percent of the mothers surveyed expressed similar optimism about marriage to the fathers.

Some two thirds of the parents (69 percent of fathers and 64 percent of mothers) agreed or strongly agreed that marriage is the better situation for children. BLI Senior Fellow, Janice Crouse, expressed concern about this seemingly contradictory attitude. She said, “That these couples continue to cohabitate even though they agree that marriage is a better choice for their children demonstrates that many values and attitudinal issues remain to be explored.” Also, Dr. Crouse is troubled that a much higher percentage of fathers than mothers expressed optimism that they would eventually marry.

Policy makers are sometimes reluctant to advocate marriage, often because of misplaced feminist notions about individual autonomy. Such fastidiousness about marriage not only ignores the evidence that married men and women are, in general, much happier and healthier than unmarried adults, but it also ignores the very clear evidence that children in married families are better off by far than their peers in single parent families by almost every measure of well-being. They are healthier, they do much better in school, and they are much less likely to engage in a host of high-risk behaviors such as crime, substance abuse, and promiscuous sexual behavior. Marriage is clearly the best situation for both adults and children.

The results of this survey suggest that efforts to encourage and strengthen marriage could possibly have a receptive audience even in communities where marriage has all but disappeared. Nevertheless, cohabitation is becoming less and less a preliminary to marriage and more and more a substitute for it, so such efforts are likely to have little effect without a radical change of attitude on the part of these parents so that their actions will match their expressed desires.

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