Can Marriage Help Alleviate Poverty?

In Baltimore, a small group of graduates completed a five-month class on how to be a couple and build a life together. None are married yet, but they all have children. And some experts believe the lives of those children might dramatically improve if their parents get married. This piece aired previously on NPR's Morning Edition.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

A few months ago in Baltimore, a small group of graduates held a big celebration. Couples completed a five-month class on how to be a pair and build a life together. None in this group is married yet but they all have children, and some experts believe the lives of those children might dramatically improve if their parents get married.

NPR's Rachel Jones reports on the early stages of this social experiment.

Unidentified Man #1: One, two, three. Cheese!

RACHEL JONES reporting:

After five months, the couples here are done with sitting in a classroom learning what a healthy relationship feels like. They're graduating with some new skills and some old challenges.

Unidentified Woman: I'm going to be calling on all of you. First of all, we're going to still be harassing y'all every 30 days to make sure y'all still together and see what's going on with you.

JONES: These African-American couples took part in a sort of group therapy for several hours once a week. They've learned how to fight fair, tell you partner what you need, and plan for the future. A million dollar federal grant helped pay for the classes. The government is putting many more millions into programs like this across the country.

Unidentified Woman: You all are a part of history. You are history in the making.

JONES: The people who run these classes are banking on research that suggests these couples will be better off financially if they're married. Among other reasons, married couples pool their incomes and more frequently save for their children's futures. And, the research says, married men tend to spend less time and less of the family's money outside the home.

Unidentified Woman: So let me ask this question. What is the biggest challenge when it comes to raising your child?

Mr. JUNIOR HOLMES (Attended Relationship Classes): I think financial.

JONES: Relationship classes start with the basics with couples like Keisha(ph) Russell and Junior Holmes.

Mr. HOLMES: Ninety percent of the class, no one even talked about marriage until we came here.

JONES: How about you, Keisha? As a girl, did you think I want to one day grow up and get married and have kids?

Ms. KEISHA RUSSELL (Attended Relationship Classes): No. It ain't even cross my mind. Cause my mother, she took care of her kids by herself. All my friends was just raised by their mother.

JONES: The couple has an 18-month-old son, Tayvon(ph). They say after taking the class, they're getting along better and thinking more about the future.

Mr. RUSSELL: I never thought that I would even consider marrying Keisha, cause like I said how my attitude was. But now that I'm starting to understand more, I've been thinking about it, wanting it to happen.

Mr. JOSEPH JONES (Runs Center Which Won Grant): I think this is the way in which social welfare policy will emerge, evolve and change over the next several years.

JONES: Joseph Jones has earned a national reputation for supporting families in Baltimore's low-income communities. The center he runs won that million dollar grant to fund relationship classes. Jones says he used to be skeptical of federal marriage promotion programs. After all, he says, the government's track record of fostering family ties among the poor hasn't been very good.

Mr. JONES: We still have what I consider to be a structural flaw in our welfare policy. When the young lady walks into the welfare office to apply for benefits and they ask her for information about the guy she's pregnant by, only for child support purposes.

Mr. JONES: Somebody getting in the front? Somebody getting in the back?

(Soundbite of car door slamming)

JONES: But Jones says he's program isn't just about marriage. It's about building healthy relationships, about parenting. And nobody's required to take these classes. Sure, they talk about marriage but that's not the only goal.

Mr. JONES: What's up, pops?

Unidentified Man #2: How you doing?

Mr. JONES: All right. How are you, man?

Unidentified Man #2: Always a pleasure.

JONES: As Jones drives around East Baltimore where he himself grew up, he says he wants to create a new culture in these neighborhoods - a culture of connection.

Mr. JONES: If I'm driving or I'm walking and I see a young man carrying a little baby, that to me says, hey man, you know, here's a caregiver. Even if he's doing something negative that's an opportunity to talk to him about, hey, what about some services or some ideas about doing something differently and help him make that transition.

JONES: But time for exploring healthy relationships may seem almost like a luxury when there are so many other serious challenges. Few families can survive and stay whole without money, without jobs. So whenever he gets the chance, Jones walks the streets of East Baltimore to promote a job-training program that's also offered by his center.

Mr. JONES: If you're looking to get into the workforce, it doesn't make a difference if you have a criminal record, right. You don't have a high school diploma. We'll work with you on all those issues, get you connected to the workforce, get your wages on time.

Unidentified Man #3: I got laid off from here. I'm (unintelligible). I done rested up now.

Mr. JONES: You got kids?

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah I got kids.

JONES: Right now, even Jones can't say how prominently marriage figures into the complex maze out of poverty, but in five years he'll have some data. Researchers will study the effect that that counseling and classes have had on couples here in Baltimore and in similar programs across the country.

Ms. ALFREDA STEWART (Graduated from Program): What time is it? Anthony.

JONES: They'll follow with couples like Alfreda Stewart, Anthony Polk(ph). We already met at the graduation celebration earlier.

Ms. STEWART: I think that everybody that was basically really in the classes was considering marriage at one point.

Mr. ANTHONY POLK (Graduated from Program): We actually told them how long we was together. They was like, y'all might, y'all already considered as a married couple ‘cause y'all been together so long.

JONES: They say they've been together - off and on - for 17 years, and that they've learned a lot in the relationships class. But they say they're not ready for marriage. She works full time as a mail carrier, but he's unemployed.

Ms. STEWART: He keep telling me once he in a better job he's like he going to pop the question then.

Mr. POLK: Once I get myself employed I can put a ring on layaway or propose to her, you know.

(Soundbite of toy playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame)

JONES: Alfreda Stewart and Anthony Polk live in subsidized housing where their diploma from the relationships class sits on top of the TV, between pictures of their three children.

DEJA: This is for Nia(ph).

JONES: One of them is 8-year-old Deja(ph).

DEJA: This is (unintelligible), another kind of doll, a Barbie doll.

JONES: And it is children like Deja researchers will also pay attention to. As her parents listen, Deja describes how the two of them got along, or didn't, before the classes.

DEJA: Like scream and holler, like, get out my house, I don't want you in my house.

JONES: So do you hear them now say things differently?

DEJA: Yes, like, Anthony walked in the house the last time and said, I'm sorry.

JONES: Later, Deja picks up two of her favorite dolls.

DEJA: And this is my mommy and daddy.

JONES: A tall girl doll with long brown hair and a flashy dress. A boy doll sports a buzz cut and his plastic muscles are bulging.

DEJA: And they're eating so she's on her way home. Didn't you forget something? What did I forget? Something special. And they kissed each other good night.

JONES: Deja lives in a place where some girls can't even imagine getting married, never even thought about it. That's what Keisha said earlier. But Deja says, one day, she will get married. When I get out of college, she says, I want a man like my daddy, Anthony, to help me out with the kids.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

DEJA: See you, see you. The end.

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