Is Marriage Worth It? For Poor Women, No.

I scratched my head (figuratively) as I scanned Laurie Penny’s latest for sufficient class consciousness. Known for being a fighter for those at the bottom, her latest essay, Is marriage worth it? has an odd focus on well-to-do women. Odd first because of its author, but second because rich women are by-and-large still saying “yes” to that question. Middle-class women are getting married, though at later ages than previous decades.

Her points about the pros and cons of modern marriage are well-articulated (as per usual for Penny) and salient. But while she shines light on the unfair, gendered division of the mostly unnoticed and seldom-discussed “emotional labor” required to run a household, I am not buying that the question of who has to remember the birthdays has much impact on when and whether low-income, low-education women marry.

“It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, realising how terrible their working conditions are and have always been, women everywhere are simply going on strike.”

It is beyond the bounds of possibility though. Maybe not the bounds of possibility, but certainly the math doesn’t point to that conclusion. The math says that the demographic group going on strike against marriage at the highest rates are poor women. (Despite conservative handwringing and fringe movements such as MGTOW, the majority of men at all income levels report the same desire to get married they always have.)

Poor women are opting out of marriage entirely, while rich women only delay it. And they’re doing so not because it’s a bad deal emotionally, not because they want their freedom, not because they don’t need no man.

As Penny points out, “Over half of Americans earning minimum wage or below are single women – and single mothers are five times as likely to live in poverty as married ones.”

Conservatives have long exhorted poor women to get married before having kids. In a speech he gave on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Marco Rubio called marriage “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty.”

Later at an Atlantic summit on female poverty Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich had a retort to this idea. “When you say to women, to get out of poverty you should get married, my question to them is, how many men you have to marry? Marrying a 10-dollar-an-hour man gets you nowhere, so you’d really have to marry three or four.”

The idea that putting a ring on it will lift women out of poverty shows that conservatives fundamentally misunderstand cause-and-effect. Women aren’t poor because they don’t get married. They’re unmarried because they’re poor.

Poor women don’t reject marriage as an institution. They simply can’t find men to marry.

“It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty,” says Kristi Williams of Ohio State University. “Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.”

The average woman wants to marry a man who earns more than she does. Even women who graduate from Harvard. “Being the breadwinner has been a linchpin of U.S. men’s masculinity for decades,” Dan Cassino wrote for HBR.

Most marriages today are between two people who earn almost the same amount, but with a slightly higher salary for the man. Assortative mating is the norm at all income levels.

Here’s the math problem that both neoconservatives and Laurie Penny fail to grapple with. At the lower end of the income scale, women outearn men on average. That means if every low-income woman married every low-income man, the majority of those marriages would have a woman breadwinner.

When they’re not telling black and Latino women to get married, neoconservatives are responding to the economic reality that soon the average childless woman will outearn the average childless man with attempts to “bully, threaten and cajole wealthy white women back to the kitchen and nursery,” according to Penny. These attempts “are as much about racist panic as they are about reinstituting a social order which only ever worked for men.”

Rather than telling men to step up and follow women’s lead in figuring out how to contribute profitably to the modern information-and-service-based economy (and this despite sexism), conservatives are instead telling women to step back to give men a chance to catch up.

None of this is going to work, of course. Poor women aren’t going to stop having kids, and rich women aren’t going to sacrifice their earning potential to soothe male egos indefinitely.

But the reason poor women aren’t going to stop having kids before they get married is that there’s no one for them to marry profitably. There simply aren’t enough men who make more money than women at the bottom to go around. The average poor woman can’t marry a middle-class man because he’s married to a middle-class women, of which there are plenty. In fact, there are currently more college educated women than there are men.

Four times as many black people have never married today than in 1960. This correlates with the fact that, according to Pew, “There are 51 employed, never-married young black men between the ages of 25 to 34 for every 100 black women in the same boat.”

Katherine Boo followed two black women African-American enrolled in a marriage promotion antipoverty program based in their Oklahoma City housing project for “The Marriage Cure.”

What she found should surprise no one with a passing familiarity with both demographic data and any sense of how poverty works on the ground. There was no one for these women to marry. All the men around them who were single were both unemployed and unemployable due to their criminal convictions.

“For these women of modest means, it seemed that finding a partner meant looking for someone who wasn’t an economic drag on them, which was a tall order. In other words, instead of poor folks being poor because they’re not married — they might not be married because they’re poor.”

And it’s not like he’s not going to help around the house.

Husbands, on average, do not do as much domestic work as wives do. This isn’t news. What’s interesting is that this holds true regardless of income or employment. That is, even when wives work more hours outside the home than their husbands, wives still do the majority of the domestic work.

There’s actually evidence that as wives who outearn their husbands’ income increases, men decrease the amount of time they spend on domestic work. As Cassino put it, “Even the potential of making less than one’s spouse threatens accepted gender roles.” These wives seem to be reassuring their spouses. By cooking the meal they also bought, they seem to be saying to their husbands, “Don’t worry. You’re still a man.”

The irony is that the backwards gender roles that conservatives keep trying to shove down people’s throats make marriage a horrible deal for poor women.

Fragile masculinity means marrying just creates more work for poor women. It’s the reason that the less educated a man is, the less likely he is to marry.

Penny writes, “If women reject marriage and partnership en masse, the economic and social functioning of modern society will be shaken to its core. It has already been shaken.”

I predict women won’t reject marriage and partnership en masse. Marriage still works for middle- and upper-class women, which makes Penny’s focus on them all the more ironic. Women at the bottom have already rejected marriage en masse (though not partnership, many live with partners to whom they are not married). But they’ve done so for reasons completely separate from the calculus of rich women. They’ve done so because there’s no one for them to marry, and that problem is likely to get worse. Right now only about 15% of U.S. men make less than their spouses. But younger men are far more likely than older men to earn the same or less than their spouses.

Penny: “The question of how households will be formed and children raised is still unsolved.”

Correct. Until and unless low-education, low-income men figure out how to either outearn low-education, low-income women or figure out how to do the majority of domestic labor, single parenthood will continue to be the norm for low-education, low-income people.

Near the end, Penny speaks of enjoying going to her friends’ weddings. “It’s just that I also happen to believe in dismantling the social and economic institutions of marriage and family.”

Similarly, I might like to remarry as well. As a college-educated woman, if I marry a college-educated man, we enter the cohort most likely to get and stay married. And as a college-educated woman, I’m much more likely to be able to find a college-educated man to marry than I would be without one. Mrs. degree FTW.

“I’m a romantic,” Penny writes. “I think love needs to be freed from the confines of the traditional, monogamous, nuclear family – and so do women. I think wrapping up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, calling it love and expecting women to do it thanklessly and for free is a profoundly unromantic idea.”

I’m a romantic as well. And while love needs to be freed from the confines of the traditional, monogamous, nuclear family, property doesn’t. The practical benefits of marriage are considerable, at the individual and societal level.

Even after controlling for income, compared to their peers children raised in a home with both biological parents have fewer behavioral problems, less asthma, less hunger, and better grades. A recent study by Economist Raj Chetty showed that nothing, not neighborhood segregation or school quality, impacts income mobility more for a low-income child than the family structures she sees in her community.

All else equal, I’d love to take advantage of the proven benefits of marriage. Middle-class families protect and grow their wealth by taking advantage of marriage’s economies of scale and division of labor.

But even more importantly, I’d like to extend those benefits downward to the poor.

The fundamental problem is not that we’ve wrapped up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, called it love and expected women to do it thanklessly and for free. It’s that we’ve wrapped up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, called it love and told men in no uncertain terms that to do it thanklessly and for free as women have always done they are acting womanlike and that to be womanlike is the more humiliating thing you could possibly do.

There are many reasons men at the bottom of the food chain don’t earn as much as women, including the degree gap, eroding demand for low-skill labor, and overincarceration.

But there’s only one reason low-earning men aren’t worthwhile husbands, and it’s misogyny.

If we want low-income families to be able to take advantage of marriage’s tremendous benefits, we will have to convince men that domestic labor is real work and that real work is honorable, even if it’s work women used to do.

6 thoughts on “Is Marriage Worth It? For Poor Women, No.

  1. 22afro

    Everytime I see terms like “unpaid domestic work” that Tyler Cowen and the above analysis talk about lately, I’m convinced nothing informative is known yet empirically about this issue. A lot about marriage is quite subjective and until we learn to carefully measure them, its all rage from rival interest groups. For example, I’ve heard a lot of men talk about financial benefits to their spouses that never make the income statistics. The pearl earrings, the dinner dates, birthday gifts etc. These are the consequences of uninformed phrases like ” unpaid domestic labour”.
    I am a man, and I’m an unyielding advocate of gender equality. Every chore in my household is suitably divided with my wife depending on our momentary dispositions. But there is no objective/competitive way of valuing my household labour market and hence all talk of unpaid work is meaningless in actual compensatory terms. If such market were to exist in the future, the current norms and social paradigm of marriage will have to be altered significantly.
    Overall, we need new ways of thinking about these problems before given to moral suasion and careless statistics.

    1. cathyreisenwitz

      It would have been a bigger worry if I’d claimed that the poors are more misogynistic than the rich. But instead I’m saying everyone is misogynistic, but like most problems, it’s impacting the poor first and worst.

      1. Oh, that’s a much better way of putting it than, “But there’s only one reason low-earning men aren’t worthwhile husbands, and it’s misogyny.”

        Funny how different an impression I initially got from what you were saying.

  2. A few questions came timing while reading this article:
    1. Poor are still having children. Why not advise them to consider their baby fathers husband material or else decide not to have children with them.
    2. The author acknowledged the benefits of marriage for children but then went to say they still wanted to do away with the institution. To be replaced with what? It’s vital to provide a substitute. Clearly poorer women have “done away” with it but are their lives any better?
    Also love has always been independent from marriage. To get married doesn’t automatically mean the two parties live each other. Mission accomplished since the dawn of humanity.

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