[Crossposted on Family Scholars Blog]
Kathryn Edin is the co-author of Promises I Can Keep. I’d recommend that every Family Scholar blogger and reader read this book (and probably many already have). An Amazon review usefully summarizes the book:
Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas spent five years living with, working with and interviewing poor women from all races and age groups who live in the depressed and poverty stricken neighborhoods of Philadelphia and its poorest industrial suburb, Camden, New Jersey. Armed with the knowledge of intimate details from 162 single mothers’ lives that could only be gained by spending years in their company, Edin and Kefalas wrote Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.
Many of these young mothers actually claim that motherhood saved them from a life of drugs, partying or one in which they had no one to love them. In these neighborhoods, becoming a mother and taking good care of one’s children elevates a young woman in the eyes of her peers and the rest of her community in terms of moral stature. It is seen as a sign of maturity and as a mother, she can now command respect. The authors believe that the high value the poor place on having children stems from two sources: fewer opportunities and resources, and stronger absolute preferences. [...]
Edin and Kefalas learned from these women that contrary to popular public opinion, poor women who have children out of wedlock actually do value the institution of marriage just as much as middle class women. They dream of marrying good men who will treat them and their children with love and respect. But they differ from their middle class counterparts because they are not willing to wait to find those men in order to have children. However, the authors point out that many single mothers (70 percent) are in fact living with men – boyfriends, fiancés and/or the fathers of at least one of their children. Thus, they argue that the perception of single mothers isn’t always accurate, in that these women aren’t always heading a household on their own.
The authors argue that action must be taken on a policy level to slow down the rate at which young women are having children out of wedlock, mainly because the children of young mothers have significantly diminished life chances. Edin and Kefalas assert that promoting marriage in and of itself can actually be detrimental to disadvantaged women, as it can only encourage women to enter into or stay in bad relationships. Instead, they think programs aimed at improving the marriage pool for women (i.e., intervening in poor young men’s lives before they can get into trouble and convincing them to postpone fatherhood until their late twenties) and at reducing pregnancy among at-risk teens are the surest way to get on the right track towards reducing this trend. They also advocate some form of relationship-skills training for young poor people. However, they believe that the economy needs to be the biggest consideration in the policy equation. Early childbearing is the one way in which the poor establish a sense of self-worth and meaning. If they had greater opportunities in terms of education and jobs and greater access to resources, they would not, in the authors’ opinions, be so quick to jump into parenthood.
Unfortunately, given the jobs picture in America right now, it seems unlikely that the marriage pool for women is going to improve anytime soon.
From an interview with Edin:
Q. Much of your research has focused on marriage, motherhood, and unmarried couples, and how these roles and relationships figure into the dynamics of poverty in America. What does your research show?
Edin: Everything we used to think about the poor with regards to marriage is probably wrong. We now know through a combination of survey evidence and the in depth interviews we’ve conducted all over the country that the poor value and, in fact, revere marriage. One woman told me, “I don’t believe in divorce, that’s why none of the women in my family are married.” There’s a sacredness to marriage in the minds of most of the poor. Ironically, the last thing they want to do is sully the institution of marriage with their own fragile relationships. They want to get married eventually, but they want to wait until they’re sure the marriage will last. And eventually, about 70 percent of women who ever give birth outside of marriage will indeed wed.
Another thing we thought we knew is that fathers who are unmarried really didn’t want to be fathers, they just wanted sex and an easy way out. What we’re finding – again, both with survey evidence and the in depth qualitative interviews we’ve been doing in four cities [Philadelphia, Charleston, Austin and San Antonio] across the country – is that fathers are deeply desirous of fatherhood and really see it as a key source of meaning and identity. In fact, the father-child relationship is of greater importance to the father than the couple relationship. And so fathers are struggling to stay connected to their kids, which is especially hard once the relationship between the parents dissolves.