Using Marriage As A Weapon Against Poverty Hurts Women

My general stance is pretty basic: Don't take marriage lightly. It also seems like a fairly non-controversial stance -- one that anyone who truly honors marriage and hates divorce could get behind, whatever their political or religious leaning.
09/14/2012 02:15 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

As a divorced Christian who married at 22 for many of the wrong reasons, I have taken it upon myself to do everything I can to promote marriage for the right reasons.

My general stance is pretty basic: Don't take marriage lightly. It also seems like a fairly non-controversial stance -- one that anyone who truly honors marriage and hates divorce could get behind, whatever their political or religious leaning.

Not surprisingly, I was dismayed to hear about The Heritage Foundation's recently released study: "Marriage: America's Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty." The study tracks statistics such as the growth of unwed childbirth, and the "death" (their word) of marriage over the past 80 years, before coming to this conclusion: "Marriage drops the probability of child poverty by 82 percent." The study's solution? Push marriage -- especially in low-income communities -- as the primary antidote to poverty.

It doesn't take super powers to see through this study. By suggesting that not being married is the cause of poverty rather than a result, The Heritage Foundation is presenting statistics in an over-simplified way that benefits their broader values and beliefs about the sanctity of marriage. The message boils down to this: "If you don't want to be poor, get married!" (The reverse is also implied: "If you're poor and not married, it's your own fault!")

There are many problems with this message, but I'm going to stick with my foundational point: Marriage should never be taken lightly. Suggesting that marriage is a matter of economics not only cheapens the institution, it puts it -- and women -- in more peril.

I recently ran across a tweet that said the secret to a long-lasting marriage is easy: just don't get a divorce. After getting all worked up and indignant about the ridiculousness of such a statement, I couldn't help but try it with a twist: The secret to not getting a divorce is easy, just don't get married.

Pushing marriage, in other words, is dangerous business because it takes marriages -- especially misguided ones -- to lay the groundwork for divorce. If The Heritage Foundation's goal is to "return our nation to its founding principles," as its website says, it seems that reducing the number of divorces would be at least as important as increasing the number of marriages.

The situation gets even more sticky when marriage is promoted for specific reasons -- maybe so you can be "right with God," or give your baby a "real dad," or, in this case, avoid poverty. When reasons like these precede marriage, raised expectations follow. Marriage has something it's supposed to deliver. When that something is money, the implications multiply. Not only is "Don't marry for money" one of the oldest, most widely-shared pieces of marriage advice out there, financial issues have long been a primary cause of divorce. Clearly finances are stressful enough on their own -- just think how much more stressful they are in marriages that were predicated on finances.

What predicated my own marriage, and how it fits into this broader issue, is complex. In many ways, my experience with marriage and divorce has been very different from the picture presented in The Heritage Foundation study. I am white and college educated, and I waited until after I was married to have children; the study points out that less-educated women are more likely to give birth outside of marriage, and seven of 10 births to black women happen outside of marriage.

But my marriage was still driven by a prevailing conservative, outdated view of what it means to be a woman. In the Midwestern, Christian community I became an adult in, the message may not have been loud, but it was nonetheless clear: "You can't support yourself -- you need a man. And whatever you do, don't live in sin. Get married."

So I got married -- to the man I loved when I graduated from college. I didn't marry for money, exactly, but because it "made sense" and it fulfilled this image of the way I thought my life should look. The irony is that I supported my husband for the first five years of our marriage, while he developed a career as an artist and then went to graduate school, taking on student loans.

We divorced after struggling through 10 years of marriage, having two children, and going through three years of counseling. In the end, money wasn't at the root of our problems, but the basic fact that we got married with false expectations, before we really knew who we were or what we needed.

As a woman at 22, I was fortunate. I had a college degree, a job, health insurance, and access to birth control. What I lacked was the affirmation of the broader culture around me -- a loud and clear message that said, "You are capable of so much, on your own." I needed to believe more fully in my ability to be successful, to be respected, and to build a future -- without a husband.

If I had that need, while also having so many advantages, think of how much more the single mothers living in poverty (and all those who may become single mothers living in poverty) need. They need education, and childcare. They need access to healthcare and birth control. And yes, they need to believe they can make something of their lives and build a better future for their children. They need government officials, pastors, and mentors who support that belief, too.

In the midst of all of those very real and pressing needs, the last thing they need is people telling them to get married if they want to get out of poverty. If we really care about these families, let's stop cheapening marriage by presenting it as an antidote, and let's start empowering women to make smart choices for a future they can sustain -- with or without a husband.