At a Heritage Foundation panel marking the end of Women’s History Month on Monday, the conservative female panelists asserted that if more women married, they would be better off financially.
Pointing out that married women are better off than single women, Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist, said, “Marriage has enabled elites to have a lot of money and stability. We should show concern in extending marriage to everybody so that everybody can benefit.” She went on to tell the audience, to laughter, “Everybody go out right now, if you’re not married, go get married and that will solve all these problems.” She added, “If you care about income inequality at all, you basically have to care about marriage.” Mona Charen, a columnist, agreed, saying, “If we truly want women to thrive, we have to revive the marriage norm.” She also asserted that “because of the nature of [women’s] bodies, because they carry and raise children, that they need support and protection during that time,” which means finding a husband.
On the other hand, the panelists concurred that the social safety net won’t help low-income women. Charen said, “It’s true that a social safety net can prevent you from falling to the ground but it cannot lift you up, it cannot give you a good life.”
It’s true that married people, on the whole, tend to enjoy better finances and less poverty. The poverty rate is about five times higher for single parents compared to married couples, and they have far less wealth and fewer assets. But unfortunately for Hemingway and Charen, that doesn’t necessarily indicate causation, and in fact getting married isn’t a solution for the country’s poor women.
Sociologist Kristi Williams did some research and found that more than two-thirds of single mothers who later married still ended up divorced by the time they were ages 35 to 44. That left them worse off, given that single mothers who don’t marry are in better financial shape than those who marry but end up single again later on. And the marriages that do last don’t necessarily give these women a leg up. She found that the pool of potential partners in low-income communities doesn’t tend to be filled with many candidates who can offer economic resources or stability. “The new unions that single mothers form tend to have low levels of relationship quality and high rates of instability,” she writes. She also found no psychological advantages for most children of single mothers who later married after looking through 30 years’ worth of data.
The government has also tried to increase marriage rates among low-income communities, initiatives that have spent huge sums of money with little to no impact. The government has spent about $800 million since 2001 on the Health Marriage Initiative, which is used on marriage education, relationship skills training, mentoring programs, public advertising campaigns, and high school programs. Yet over that period, the marriage rate continued to decline nationally, falling 26 percent in the 2000s, and the divorce rate didn’t change. State-level spending also had little impact, as it “did not have a significant association with state marriage rates,” notes the National Center for Family & Marriage Research in a report on the program. The states that spent the least saw declines in their marriage rates, but so did those that spent the most. The also had similar divorce rates.
Another federal program, Building Strong Families, spent $11,000 per couple on relationship skills sessions and support services. Three years after it began, it had no effect on whether couples got married or even stayed involved, while those in the program were actually slightly less likely to stay together or cohabitate than those who didn’t participate. Fathers in the program were less likely to spend time with or support their children, and the kids overall didn’t see any benefit compared in a control group.
What poor women do need to get ahead are the tools that allow them to pursue their careers. One of those is access to sex education and contraception. Williams found that the women she studied need “expansive and affordable access to birth control and family planning services” so they can avoid unwanted pregnancies. Most women use contraception to help them complete education, hold a job, and support themselves financially.
And they also need a stronger safety net, despite Charen’s contention that it won’t do the trick. Single mothers in this country are worse off than those in 16 other developed peers because the social safety net is so thin: they have the lowest rates of health insurance, experience the stingiest income support, aren’t guaranteed paid time off of work when they have a new child or if a child gets sick, have to wait longer for preschool to begin, and have a low rate of receiving child support. If you bother to ask them, these are the things they say they need. Nearly 90 percent of women living in poverty or just on the brink say that universal access to paid sick days would be “very useful,” the number one policy they say they need, above better pay or benefits. Nearly 80 percent say they needed better access to high-quality, affordable childcare. And 85 percent of women support paid family leave.