Debating Marriage's Effect on Poverty

The fourth and final report in the Day to Day series on marriage education examines the relationship between the decision not to marry and poverty. Critics and supporters of government-sponsored marriage education continue to debate the solution to helping poor families: marriage education — and marriage promotion — or economic assistance.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Here's a social statistic that was new to me. Poor people marry at a much lower rate than those who are better off. That's according to data from the government census. Some experts say these numbers just demonstrate that the stress of poverty makes everything harder in life, including personal relationships. But the underlying thesis of the Bush administration's support for the marriage education movement is somewhat different. The Healthy Families Initiative Program operates on the assumption that poorer Americans don't know how to negotiate the difficulties that we associate with long-term relationships. Here's NPR's Alix Spiegel with the conclusion of her series on marriage education.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

When Tracy(ph) and Craig Hecht(ph) got engaged three years ago, they made a solemn pledge. They promised each other that no matter how bitterly they fought or how difficult their lives became, they would never resort to calling each other names. Both were refugees from disastrous first marriages. Tracy's first husband had become a drug dealer, Craig's wife had left him after nine months, and neither wanted to fail again. But their good intentions didn't last long, less than three months. Craig and Tracy Hecht.

Mr. CRAIG HECHT: At one time she called an (censored). I'm like, `OK. You broke the barrier. The same thing goes back to you now.'

Mrs. TRACY HECHT: One night he called me a whore. That really pissed me off, you know. That hurts somebody, and especially when it's coming from your spouse and in front of the kids.

SPIEGEL: The fighting bothered Tracy because she, in particular, was terrified of divorce. Her mother had been married four times and Tracy didn't want to follow this example. And so she did the only thing she knew to do. She talked, talked and talked, trying to address their problems head-on before they undermined their relationship.

Mr. HECHT: She started talking to me and talking to me like 15 minutes straight. And she goes, `Do you understand what I'm saying?' I can't even remember what she said the first time, you know, like in the beginning.

Mrs. HECHT: Go anywhere just to get away from me, another room, go lift weights, go in the basement, go take a shower. He just never wanted to address what we were talking about.

SPIEGEL: The situation deteriorated so dramatically that Craig began to fear his own behavior.

Mr. HECHT: I was at a point where she was pushing me all the time. I was getting so mad at her, I was afraid I was going to hurt her or something like that, do something. We were at that point, going over to the violence part.

SPIEGEL: And so Craig did the only thing he knew how to do: He moved out. Tracy thought the marriage was over until three weeks later when she got a call from Craig. He proposed that they go to a marriage education class, a course offered at their local community center. Tracy agreed, but both were skeptical. The couple had tried counseling in the first six months of their marriage, and the experience had only made things worse. But the first session of marriage education was a transformative experience.

Mr. HECHT: The first one blew me away like how it actually--it seemed like somebody was following us around. Like the arguments that they had examples of, it was exactly what we had there.

Mrs. HECHT: They showed a video of a couple having a fight and it was like he said earlier, like somebody following us around with a video camera. Like the video was over, like, cleaning, like bread crumbs or something on the table for the very first video. And it, you know, turned into their getting a divorce and he's leaving and--over cleaning. Because it all depends on how you say something. You could say something five different ways, and each time it'll have a different meaning to somebody.

SPIEGEL: And so over the course of eight weeks, Craig and Tracy learned how to speak to each other--or, rather, unlearned how to speak to each other--as the class taught skills like the speaker-listener technique.

Mrs. HECHT: They teach you to speak in smaller sentences so it's not too much for the other person to absorb. Then they repeat back to you what they heard. So at that point, that's what they're saying; they validated you. You know that they're listening to you. Simple techniques which teach you how to respect each other and not overstep your bounds with each other and help understand each other.

SPIEGEL: It sounds basic, simplistic, but Tracy and Craig agree that learning these skills transformed their relationship. Today, although they often disagree, they say they almost never fight. And Wade Horn, assistant secretary of the Administration for Children & Families, says that this is exactly why the president has proposed spending $1.5 billion on marriage education, because marriage education will give poor couples the skills they need.

Mr. WADE HORN (Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children & Families): What predicts marital stability are the very kinds of skills that we're talking about, that couples who listen to each other, whose positive interactions outweigh negative interactions, are much more likely to stay together in a satisfying relationship than those that don't do those things.

SPIEGEL: To Horn, the reason that the marriage rate for poor couples is so low is not because economically disadvantaged couples are disinterested in marriage or long-term stable relationships.

Mr. HORN: They're not clear about how they sustain that over time, and the disappointment in not being able to sustain it is what drives them out of it.

SPIEGEL: But this analysis of the problem doesn't sit well with everyone.

Ms. AVIS DeWEAVER (Institute for Women's Policy Research): They're really treating the symptom instead of the problem.

SPIEGEL: Avis DeWeaver researches poor women for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, and she doesn't agree with Horn's assessment. She thinks the real reason poor people marry at lower rates has nothing to do with skills but with very practical calculations.

Ms. DeWEAVER: Particularly within the low-income population, people tend to very strictly look at what people might call the marriageability of their partners. So they're looking for things like whether or not their partner has a secure job, whether or not that partner has a steady income.

SPIEGEL: She points out that particularly for poor black women, the pool of available partners is limited. So, DeWeaver argues, if the government really wants to strengthen marriage, it should invest in programs that provide job training and access to higher education.

Ms. DeWEAVER: I think that if we were to really invest in an anti-poverty program in this country, we would create an environment where marriages would more naturally occur.

SPIEGEL: To bolster her point, DeWeaver points to a study of the Minnesota Family Investment Program, a comprehensive anti-poverty project that included things like income supplements.

Ms. DeWEAVER: Those people who had access to that extra support economically, they were more likely to get married if they weren't married. If they were married, they were more likely to stay married. And for those families, they were less likely to experience any sort of domestic violence situations. And that wasn't a pro-marriage program, mind you. That was a program that was looking at transitioning people from welfare to work.

SPIEGEL: But Wade Horn from ACF has little patience for people who focus exclusively on the economics.

Mr. HORN: If economics was the best predictor of which couples fail and which couples don't fail, then Hollywood would be full of very sustainable marriages, and that's simply not so.

SPIEGEL: In fact, says Horn, lack of relationship skills is not limited to poor families. He says the problem afflicts couples in every economic category and is, in part, the product of a broader cultural misconception about the nature of love.

Mr. HORN: We have a belief today in our culture that marriage is a matter of luck. What do we say? We say, `Find your soul mate. And if you find your soul mate, you'll be happy for the rest of your life and you'll never have problems.' Well, if you believe that marriage is mostly about finding your soul mate and then suddenly the reality sets in six months or even sooner after marriage and you start to find out that some things your spouse does irritates you or--and you get into arguments, the thought that you have is, `Oh, my God, I've chosen wrong. I didn't choose my soul mate. My soul mate's still out there someplace.' So there is a skills deficit not just in low-income communities in America today when it comes to marriage. It's throughout American culture. And part of what we are trying to do is to bring our message not just to low-income communities but to the broader culture that marriage is something that is, yes, about love, yes, about companionship, but also about skills and that all of us can always improve our skills.

SPIEGEL: This idea, that relationship skills could be beneficial, doesn't seem outlandish to Avis DeWeaver. She just questions whether 1.5 billion should be diverted from welfare programs.

Ms. DeWEAVER: We have several examples of what works in terms of getting people out of poverty. Marriage, as far as I know, there's no research that suggests that that gets people out of poverty.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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