Get married before you have kids, have a job, and graduate high school. These are the three components of what social scientists call “The Success Sequence”. Research shows that if you do these three things, your chances of finding yourself in poverty are below 3%. Sounds simple enough, right? Some say not so fast.
A growing number of critics argue that the Success Sequence is less of a script to follow and more of a reflective description of people who are already successful. By emphasizing the challenges faced by Americans living in poverty, these critics contend that the importance of marriage is overstated. Certainly there are a number of factors and obstacles that limit the agency of Americans experiencing economic hardship. The fact that opportunity among Americans varies, and not everyone is born with the same opportunities to succeed, is well-documented. As we delve deeper into the research, however, we find that that the benefits of marriage transcend socioeconomic factors and can empower families to make positive strides in their lives.
In his book “The Inclusive Economy,” Cato Institute scholar Michael Tanner identifies high debt and lack of savings as two of the major challenges facing Americans in poverty. Without a savings or emergency fund, one surprise medical bill or unforseen utility charge can quite literally put families out on the street and in financial ruin, buried by mountains of suffocating debt .
Marriage can serve as an insulator to this type of instability. By joining together both spouses’ bank accounts and incomes, married couples have an easier time making ends meet. Increased tax credits and shared expenses factor in as well. Another debt trap many Americans living on the margins find themselves caught in is payday loans. Payday loans are small, expensive loans that are marketed as quick credit, but often create long-term, burdensome financial obligations. These loans have extremely high interest rates and can possibly be tied to the title of the debtor’s car or home.
Marriage pools more familial resources together and creates options that can help people stay away from these predatory institutions. Whether it’s joint applications for credit, or reaching out to family members, such as in-laws, for small dollar loans, marriage opens up avenues for safer credit and more financial stability as a whole.
The advantage that marriage offers American families isn’t just measured in dollars and cents. Creating a family through marriage offers new assets in taking on the challenges of life. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted,” Matthew Desmond painfully chronicles the life of Arleen, a single mom and her two children, Jori and Jafaris, struggling to create a good life in inner city Milwaukee. Seemingly innocuous events such as sickness, car problems, and the bus running late catastrophize into severely damaging crises because this small family is stretched so thin. In contrast, the added familial assets added by marriage can act as an “airbag” to life’s crashes.
Policies created to help keep families intact such as Family Leave, can offer much needed peace of mind to a family with children who fall ill. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles employees to up to twelve weeks of leave to care for either themselves or a family member who has fallen ill or been injured. Through this time period their job and health insurance are secure. Even for families whose circumstances are different, everyone undoubtedly benefits from an extra set of hands around the house and shared responsibility for family matters. Simply put, marriage offers extra familial security during critical times.
The final advantage offered by marriage doesn’t just transcend socioeconomic boundaries – it is of critical importance for Americans living on the margins. That advantage is faith. Not faith in a spiritual or religious sense – but faith in a better tomorrow.
Marriage by definition requires a basic level of trust. A partner must trust that their spouse will be with them “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,…”. The effect of such trust or faith cannot be overstated. Throughout the years, political rhetoric and societal attitudes have looked down on poor Americans, seeing their poverty as a natural consequence of their poor actions. While it is true that Americans living on or below the poverty line tend to spend money in a way that does not promote savings or growth, many people misunderstand the reasoning behind these choices.
Social scientist Kathryn Edin, while interviewing single mothers on welfare for her book “Making Ends Meet,” asked a young mother why she spent her Earned Income Tax Credit cash payment for frivolities instead of more worthwhile goals. The mother’s answer proved both insightful and heartbreaking. She said “I’ll always be poor, I just wanted to give my daughters a great birthday.”
This sentiment was reinforced in a 2015 study conducted by Adam Travis at Harvard University. He found that renters who had experienced hardship such as poverty, incarceration, abuse, or addiction were far less likely to believe that “…their community could come together to improve their lives.” They don’t just lack belief in themselves or in others, they lack belief in the world around them.
Such powerful beliefs have powerful impacts on the world around them. Covenanting with someone and promising to be with them “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, …” suddenly transforms from just a couple of words spoken, to a blueprint that will go on to empower an individual, their family, and the community around them.
Desmond, M., & Travis, A. (2018). Political Consequences of Survival Strategies among the Urban Poor. American Sociological Review, 83(5), 869–896. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122418792836
Family and Medical Leave Act. https://www.dol.gov/whd/fmla/
Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. New York, NY, US: Crown Publishers/Random House.
Edin, K and Lein, L. (1997) Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work. By Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997
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