Expectations and the economic bar to marriage among low-income couples

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Copyright © 2007 by Russell Sage Foundation. All rights reserved. EMPIRICAL RESEARCH indicates an interesting contradiction regarding marital beliefs and behavior among low-income individuals. Marriage rates among the disadvantaged are lower than those for the general population (Goldstein and Kenney 2001), yet their attitudes, as indicated by survey data, reflect a deep belief in and reverence for marriage (Lichter, Batson, and Brown 2004; Sayer, Wright, and Edin 2004). A series of recent qualitative studies suggest a resolution to this apparent incongruity between values and actions: marriage has been imbued with such a high degree of symbolic significance that it may actually deter people from marrying (Edin 2000; Edin and Kefalas 2005; Smock, Manning, and Porter 2005). It has become a sign of success, a crowning achievement, because it is an indication that a couple has accomplished what is required for marriage (Cherlin 2004). Specifically, previous studies suggest that couples feel they should marry only after they have achieved financial and emotional stability, as indicated by steady employment, savings for a house or a wedding, and guarantees that their relationship will not be sullied by divorce (Edin and Kefalas 2005; Gibson-Davis, Edin, and McLanahan, 2005; Smock, Manning, and Porter 2005). Not surprisingly, couples, particularly those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, are finding it very difficult to achieve these standards. These standards of marriage have been found in work with several qualitative studies (Edin and Kefalas 2005; Edin, Kefalas, and Reed 2004; Gibson-Davis, Edin, and McLanahan 2005; Smock, Manning, and Porter 2005). All conclude that cultural attitudes toward the economic requirements of marriage, in combination with low economic resources, play an important role in deterring marriage. The studies report that respondents delayed marriage because they believed their economic circumstances dictated that they were not ready for the institution. If a couple was barely surviving financially, unable to afford a mortgage, or without the funds to celebrate a wedding properly, then the couple had not exceeded the financial threshold for a marriage, and should wait to marry until those things were in place. The work cited, however, relied on cross-sectional data. As a result, it is unclear how enduring these beliefs are, and if individuals will lessen their economic expectations of marriage if they are making little financial progress. Furthermore, the role of the expectations on marriage decisions is unclear. It is unknown whether meeting these economic expectations will encourage a couple to marry. I address these questions by using data from the Time, Love and Cash among Couples with Children study, a longitudinal qualitative study of seventy-five low-income parents, to explore how the economic bar to marriage influences marital behavior. This chapter builds on previous work with the TLC3 sample that found that unmarried, new parents had a strong desire to marry, but were hesitant to do so in part because of limited assets and earnings (Gibson-Davis, Edin, and McLanahan 2005). I use longitudinal data from forty-seven TLC3 couples who were unmarried when we first interviewed them, shortly after the focal child's birth, to explore how couples discuss their expectations of marriage, and to see if financial expectations continue to act as a barrier to marriage. Because I find that most of the couples have consistently held that economics pose a barrier to marriage, I then analyze how meeting a limited economic bar is correlated with getting married. Because of the small sample size, the conclusions presented here are preliminary and the findings warrant future replication. However, the qualitative data presented here presents unique insights into how marriage beliefs at the time of a baby's birth might translate into relationship decisions over a four-year period.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Gibson-Davis, CM

Published Date

  • January 1, 2007

Volume / Issue

  • 9781610441865 /

Book Title

  • Unmarried Couples with Children

Start / End Page

  • 84 - 103

International Standard Book Number 13 (ISBN-13)

  • 9780871542854

Citation Source

  • Scopus