Marriage Can’t Be the Solution to Poverty

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How has New York (and, indeed, America) lost its middle class? This is the big question these days, especially as rents continue to rise, wage stagnation continues, and it increasingly seems like we all live in a city of the extremely wealthy and the extremely, well, not even close to wealthy. The reasons that the middle class has all but vanished are manifold, and include a lack of jobs that used to provide middle class wages, a shortage of affordable housing, and seemingly interminable student loan debts. And so a lot of the solutions to rebuilding the middle class and raising the overall standards of living for the lower class revolve around ideas like debt management programs, job creation, and the construction of affordable housing. All good ideas, of course, although their implementation has been far from perfect (if existent at all in some places), and so new ways to narrow the income gap have been sought. And now it seems that there’s new focus on a way to combat the disappearing middle class and promote more and more people out of poverty. What is this easy fix? Marriage! That’s right, if you want to live better, just get hitched. Or hadn’t you heard that all married couples live happily ever after? Wait. What?

In an article titled “How America’s Marriage Crisis Makes Income Inequality So Much Worse,” Derek Thompson writes that while “marriage used to be a pairing of opposites: Men would work for pay and women would work at home,” it has now “slowly become an arrangement pairing similarly rich and educated people. Ambitious workaholics used to seek partners who were happy to take care of the house. Today, they’re more likely to seek another ambitious workaholic.”  Basically, Thompson notes, “in America today, a healthy, growing family income is a two-person job.” The statistics bear Thompson out, poverty is highly concentrated among unmarried men and women, especially single parents. And married couples with only one income are similarly struggling. Furthermore, it’s not, Thompson writes, just about getting married—it’s about staying married, which high-income earners with a solid educational background are far more likely to do. Thompson concludes that a solution to the problem of poverty is for Americans with income woes to just do the most basic of math equations “two is more than one,” and then, you know, get married. It’s just that simple!

Except, of course, it’s not! It’s not that simple at all. The suggestion that matrimony is the problem to all societal ills is not a new one; it’s been a conservative rallying cry for several decades now. What’s striking is that the idea is being embraced by liberals, which, perhaps is due to the fact that the fight for gay marriage has made it seem that marriage is the relationship endpoint that every human wants, and even more than that, needs. This is ridiculous. Gay marriage is a civil rights issue, and the reason that it is an important (and still ongoing!) fight is that there is a huge segment of the population that has long been denied basic rights and privileges due to their sexual orientation, and, yes, some of those privileges were financial. It is undoubtedly true that many  people who struggle as single parents (the vast, VAST majority of them women) would benefit from having another income from a stable partner. But you know what else they would benefit from? Having access to affordable daycare. Having paid maternity leave. Having affordable housing options. Having easy access to good health care and good birth control options. Having all the rights that countries like Denmark and Sweden and Norway and others give to their citizens, without also promoting the idea of marriage as a saving grace. Because those countries? Have seen marriage rates plummet, and yet they also have some of the highest standards of living anywhere in the world.

Suggesting that marriage—an institution that was established for the very purpose of conserving wealth and keeping it within certain families and social strata—is the answer for everybody, and that if poor people can’t figure that out, then they just aren’t capable of simple math, is insulting. I firmly believe that anyone who wants to get married should go right ahead and do so. There’s a good chance—especially if they’re already privileged—that the marriage will work out just fine. At least on paper. But for all those people who don’t want to get married, or who don’t have that option even if they did want it, or who maybe were married but it didn’t work out—suggesting marriage as a solution is absurd and solves absolutely nothing. Rather than pretending that the cure for society’s ills is one of the very things that has helped to establish so much inequality is ridiculous. Maybe we should be figuring out ways to help the people for whom matrimony is not on the table by giving them enough foundational support that they can live independent lives unburdened by the reality that one false move could leave them crippled by debt. Just because someone is single, doesn’t mean that our society should leave them on their own. And it certainly doesn’t mean that a walk down the aisle is the answer to all their problems.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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