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Unmarried Because They Value Marriage

By Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas
Sunday, May 1, 2005

When we first met Lisa, a white, 10th-grade dropout, she was on welfare and struggling to complete a GED while living with her stepmother, her sister and her 16-month-old son in a cramped rowhouse in one of Philadelphia's roughest neighborhoods. She was also pregnant again by the father of her first child, a sporadically employed construction worker. But, she told us, she was not planning on getting married anytime soon. In 1950, when only one in 20 American children was born to an unmarried mother, Lisa and her boyfriend would probably have been living together already as man and wife. Today, though, one in three children is born to unmarried parents.

To understand this rise in unmarried childbearing, we tried to offer women like Lisa an opportunity to answer the question that many middle-class Americans ask about them: Why don't they marry before having children? To find out, we spent five years getting to know 162 white, African American and Puerto Rican single mothers who live in the poorest sections of Philadelphia and its sister city, Camden, N.J., talking with them over kitchen tables and on front stoops.

What we discovered was surprising: Instead of a rejection of marriage, we found a deep respect for it among many young mothers, who told us that getting married was their ultimate life ambition. While they acknowledge that putting children before marriage is not the ideal way of doing things, they're not about to risk going through life childless while waiting for Mr. Right. They build their dreams around children: As one 20-year-old mother explained as she watched her toddler, "I wanted to have a baby. It wasn't, like, because everybody else had a baby. . . . I wanted somebody to take care of."

Their hopes for marriage are tempered by caution: These women calculate the risks and rewards of a permanent tie to the men they believe are available to them. They also balance their marital aspirations against their strong moral views about the conditions under which it is right to marry.

Marriage, we heard time and again, ought to be reserved for those couples who've acquired the symbols of working-class respectability -- a mortgage on a modest rowhouse, a reliable car, a savings account and enough money left over to host a "decent" wedding. But unlike their mothers and grandmothers, young women coming of age in poor neighborhoods today are not willing to achieve these goals by relying on a man. A 21-year-old mother argued, "I'm gonna make sure I have my own stability. I mean, because they're my kids. I don't care who the fathers are, they're mine . For the rest of my life they're gonna be my kids and I'm gonna have to take care of them, with or without their fathers."

These women said they want to be financially secure before they wed, because a marriage, they believe, should be a partnership of equals. The women talked about the patriarchal views that many of their partners hold, arguing that money of their own will keep their men from thinking they "own" them.

Most of all, though, these mothers told us how they desperately want partners they can trust. Though about eight out of 10 unmarried new mothers say they hope to marry their children's father some day, less than one in seven manage to do so by the time their child turns 3. The story behind these discouraging statistics is more than a lack of money. Women described to us relationships that were plagued by their partner's drug and alcohol addictions, criminal behavior, frequent run-ins with the law, chronic infidelity and violent behavior. They felt there was little hope for a marriage to survive when, as one woman said, "You just can't trust them anymore, can't get a decent man that you really, really trust."

At the heart of these women's reluctance to marry is a strong aversion to divorce. It is the conviction that marriage should last forever that convinces them that "getting married just to get divorced" is worse than having a baby outside of marriage. Meanwhile, the future prospects of many inner-city youth are already so limited they have little to lose, and perhaps much to gain, from a seemingly ill-timed birth. While girls from the suburbs dream of the lucrative careers and comfortable lifestyles that await them if they defer childbearing into their late twenties and thirties, economists have shown that poor girls who bear children while still in their teens would have been no better off for waiting.

Promoting marriage among young couples like Lisa and her boyfriend Shawn has become the new war on poverty. Several states, including Maryland, are piloting innovative programs aimed at providing poor unmarried couples who want to stay together with the interpersonal skills that will help them manage their anger, communicate better and become more effective parents. Many liberals are sharply critical of these efforts, in part because they may divert money from poor children. However, none of these state initiatives are coercing couples to marry, and poor couples themselves say they desperately need the skills the programs provide.

Will improving couples' relationships keep more of them together? Probably so. Will these efforts alone be enough to get many of them married and keep them that way? This is less likely. Though the prospect of a poor relationship poses a significant barrier to marriage among the poor, these women view financial security as vital to lasting marriage -- a notion most middle-class Americans endorse. Indeed, if marriage promotion programs do succeed in getting couples to marry, unless couples achieve the long-term financial security that makes marriage strong, the programs may just increase divorce within low-income communities. And children would be no better off than before, as the offspring of divorced parents fare as poorly on average as children of never-married mothers do.

For poor single mothers, marriage has not lost its value. Quite the opposite: They revere it too much to sully it with a foolish union. The standards they expressed echoed those of middle-class Americans. The women we met wanted to wed, but they insisted on marrying well. This, in their view, is the only way to avoid divorce. Until young women have access to the trusting relationships and secure financial futures their privileged counterparts demand, they'll invest their dreams for the future in their children, but they won't be walking down the aisle first.

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, both Philadelphia-based sociologists, teach at the University of Pennsylvania and St. Joseph's University, respectively. They are co-authors of "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage" (University of California).

Author's e-mail: mkefalas@sju.edu

© 2005 The Washington Post Company