Using marriage as a weapon against poverty hurts women

by Kristin on October 18, 2012

in Love, family & community

Photo by evanforester

Women didn’t fare so well in the hands of Mitt Romney during Tuesday evening’s presidential debate. Twitter, of course, lit up with commentary along the lines of this, from @winelibrarian: “I’m still undecided which was more offensive: binders of women, single moms cause gun violence, or equal pay turning into cooking dinner.”

Personally, I got a bit worked up about how little respect Romney showed the female moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, as he repeatedly interrupted and talked over her. (Perhaps that had something to do with her rogue decision to essentially fact check Romney on stage, during a discussion on Libya?)

But ultimately it was Romney’s reference to single mothers—and his push for marriage as solution to our country’s poverty and therefore gun violence problems—that upset me most. It also brought to mind a piece I wrote last month for Huffington Post: “Using Marriage As A Weapon Against Poverty Hurts Women.” Seems like a good time to share most of it again here. Feel free to include the words “and gun violence” after each mention of poverty. (The full post was originally published here.)


As a divorced Christian who married at 22 for many of the wrong reasons, I have taken it upon myself to do everything I can to promote marriage for the right reasons.

My general stance is pretty basic: Don’t take marriage lightly. It also seems like a fairly non-controversial stance—one that anyone who truly honors marriage and hates divorce could get behind, whatever their political or religious leaning.

Not surprisingly, I was dismayed to hear about The Heritage Foundation’s recently released study: Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty. The study tracks statistics such as the growth of unwed childbirth, and the “death” (their word) of marriage over the past 80 years, before coming to this conclusion: “Marriage drops the probability of child poverty by 82 percent.” The study’s solution? Push marriage—especially in low-income communities—as the primary antidote to poverty.

It doesn’t take super powers to see through this study. By suggesting that not being married is the cause of poverty rather than a result, The Heritage Foundation is presenting statistics in an over-simplified way that benefits their broader values and beliefs about the sanctity of marriage. The message boils down to this: “If you don’t want to be poor, get married!” (The reverse is also implied: “If you’re poor and not married, it’s your own fault!”)

There are many problems with this message, but I’m going to stick with my foundational point: Marriage should never be taken lightly. Suggesting that marriage is a matter of economics not only cheapens the institution, it puts it—and women—in more peril.

I recently ran across a tweet that said the secret to a long-lasting marriage is easy: just don’t get a divorce. After getting all worked up and indignant about the ridiculousness of such a statement, I couldn’t help but try it with a twist: The secret to not getting a divorce is easy, just don’t get married.

Pushing marriage, in other words, is dangerous business because it takes marriages—especially misguided ones—to lay the groundwork for divorce. If The Heritage Foundation’s goal is to “return our nation to its founding principles,” as its website says, it seems that reducing the number of divorces would be at least as important as increasing the number of marriages.

The situation gets even more sticky when marriage is promoted for specific reasons—maybe so you can be “right with God,” or give your baby a “real dad,” or, in this case, avoid poverty. When reasons like these precede marriage, raised expectations follow. Marriage has something it’s supposed to deliver. When that something is money, the implications multiply. Not only is “Don’t marry for money” one of the oldest, most widely-shared pieces of marriage advice out there, financial issues have long been a primary cause of divorce. Clearly finances are stressful enough on their own—just think how much more stressful they are in marriages that were predicated on finances.

What predicated my own marriage, and how it fits into this broader issue, is complex. In many ways, my experience with marriage and divorce has been very different from the picture presented in The Heritage Foundation study. I am white and college educated, and I waited until after I was married to have children; the study points out that less-educated women are more likely to give birth outside of marriage, and seven of 10 births to black women happen outside of marriage.

But my marriage was still driven by a prevailing conservative, outdated view of what it means to be a woman. In the Midwestern, Christian community I became an adult in, the message may not have been loud, but it was nonetheless clear: “You can’t support yourself—you need a man. And whatever you do, don’t live in sin. Get married.”

As a woman at 22, I was fortunate. I had a college degree, a job, health insurance, and access to birth control. What I lacked was the affirmation of the broader culture around me—a loud and clear message that said, “You are capable of so much, on your own.” I needed to believe more fully in my ability to be successful, to be respected, and to build a future—without a husband.

If I had that need, while also having so many advantages, think of how much more the single mothers living in poverty (and all those who may become single mothers living in poverty) need. They need education, and childcare. They need access to healthcare and birth control. And yes, they need to believe they can make something of their lives and build a better future for their children. They need government officials, pastors, and mentors who support that belief, too.

In the midst of all of those very real and pressing needs, the last thing they need is people telling them to get married if they want to get out of poverty. If we really care about these families, let’s stop cheapening marriage by presenting it as an antidote, and let’s start empowering women to make smart choices for a future they can sustain—with or without a husband.

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  • Kristen Otte

    Wow. What a great post. I didn’t get married until age 26 because I needed years on my own to become who God created me to be. I needed time to figure things out, be independent and push myself. If I pushed myself into marriage earlier, I fear I would not be the woman I am today.

    • Kristin T.

      You were clearly very wise (or you had wise counsel)! I know, too, that you work with youth, so you are impacting young women on a regular basis, within the context of the Christian faith—it gives me much hope to know you’re out there, changing some of these patterns.

  • Jennifer Luitwieler

    This. Bam. Boom. Pow. I have been wondering why I’m not rolling in money. I’m married and I continue to budget and skimp and save. It’s a scary argument to make. It’s akin to “get married if you burn with lust.” Because what comes after the lust is quenched?

    I am all for empowering women (like my daughters) to recognize their value as future shapers. Why don’t our politicians see this?

    • Kristin T.

      I love it when my posts inspire super hero sound effects! :) You are so smart to bring up the “what comes after the lust is quenched” question. Bam. Boom. Pow. Exactly.

  • Margaret

    “If we really care about these families, let’s stop cheapening
    marriage by presenting it as an antidote, and let’s start empowering
    women to make smart choices for a future they can sustain—with or
    without a husband.” Great thoughts!

  • themoderngal

    Yes, yes, yes. Thank you for A. pointing out that correlation does not mean causation. and B. Marriage is a great foundation — when it happens for the right reasons. Marriage on its own cannot solve any problems. People solve problems, and they need the support and affirmation that will allow them to solve problems.

    • kt_writes

      I love how you put this: “Marriage on its own cannot solve any problems. People solve problems,
      and they need the support and affirmation that will allow them to solve
      problems.” A big yes, yes, yes to you, too. :)

    • Bret Mavrich

      That’s only a sentiment. Of course people solve problems, but the numbers suggest that people in marriage solve problems like poverty better than people running single-parent homes.

      Now, we don’t have to demonize or even criticize people in single-parent situations to admit that marriage should be supported and encouraged, do we?