But I do believe, now that I've gotten into this business, that it's
fundamentally important for policy makers to understand the meaning of
marriage to low-income couples, if they want to have any kind of impact.
I'm kind of neutral on whether they should or they shouldn't have an
impact. But I think there's really a total lack of understanding of how
poor couples think about marriage and childbearing. Without that
information, we could really spend a lot of money, and not see a lot
Let's talk a little bit about some of the things that
surprised you. I take it one of the first things is that you found all
these couples that were living together.
Right. That was kind of the first big news coming out of the Fragile
Family Survey -- that half of all couples who have a non-marital child
are actually cohabiting; some on their own, and some with kin. It's very
interesting, because when we looked at those young couples who weren't
cohabiting but had a child, almost all of them, with the exception of a
couple families, were trying to get there. It's almost as if there's
kind of this, "Well, you have a baby now. You're together. You're a
couple." Eighty-five percent of these couples were romantically involved
at the time of the birth. That was the other big surprise that the
survey uncovered. ...
That there was romance [out there]?
That they were still together, romantically involved and planning on
staying together when this baby was born. So what the couples were doing
is they were telling us they were trying to move toward a more
permanent relationship with one another, and marriage figured into that
picture, at least in the long term.
But I guess what's interesting and intriguing and complicated about
the story is the criteria they have for marriage, because the bar for
marriage that we found is very high. Marriage isn't something you do
now, and then you and she work together as a couple, or to achieve your
dream, the way it maybe was for our parents. Marriage is the finish
line. It's the frosting on the cake; it's graduation, once you've
achieved financial stability and you have some of the accouterments of
middle-class success, like maybe a mortgage and two working cars, and
maybe some money in the bank, and you've really put your relationship
through the test of time.
So it's not that marriage isn't taken seriously. I would say that
it's taken too seriously, in some ways. It's really held up as an ideal,
and one that people aren't willing to compromise on. "If I can't have
that, if I can't marry well, I'm not going to marry at all."
... Yet they're willing to have kids ... which seems to me
a much more monumental undertaking than getting married.
Right. That's the interesting thing, because if we talk to many of
our middle-class friends' children, they're talking in the same way
about marriage. "We've lived together for five years but we're still not
sure. We want to make sure we have our dream home first." Couples are
delaying marriage all across America, in all class and race and
education groups. But what's different about the poor is that they're
having the kids. Now, this phenomenon is not growing at the bottom end;
it just is, and it has been for a long time. But the rates of
non-marital childbearing are very high in the lower end of the income
and education distribution.
So that was our next task, to figure out what the meaning of children
was to poor couples. Our couples have told us what the answer to that
question is. While marriage is a goal -- and something couples dream of
and want and wish for and hope for -- saying, "I don't want to get
married" is saying, "I don't want to be successful." Because of course
that's what everyone wants. But that's not a necessity. That's not
something you have to have, and you may not get there. But having
children is clearly a necessity. That's something these couples -- the
women in particular -- are not willing live without.
So life without kids is inconceivable. "Here's a guy who might prove
a good dad. I hope that he and I will have a child together, and will
make it through all of these hurdles and that we'll eventually marry.
But I'm going to go ahead and have that child now, because that's
something that normal people do. They have children."
When you look at the middle class, we're doing interesting and
peculiar things as well. We're waiting so late in the game that we're
spending a lot on reproductive technologies that we wouldn't have in
other eras. I mean, there're all kinds of ways in which this changing
meaning of marriage is playing itself out ... across the different
... On that point, you talked about Murphy Brown for
example, and what one young woman told you. ...
I was talking to one young woman, who I've known for many years and
I've watched as part of the field work. I've watched her and her
boyfriend really struggling, and breaking up and getting back together.
He has another child by someone else. And we're eating pizza and she's
telling me that she's going to have another child by this ne'er-do-well
boyfriend. So she's telling me about it, and they've already broken up,
but she's pregnant and she's very tearful.
Then she kind of gets this defiant look in her eye, and she said,
"Some day I'm going to plan my babies like you white women do." And I'm
shocked. I said, "Angela, what do you mean by that?" She said, "Well,
you know, it's like Murphy Brown. You've got your BMW, you've got your
MBA, and then, maybe, you'll have children."
I was totally taken aback by this comment, and I said to Angela,
"Well, what does this mean? This is really interesting." She began to
relate a story of how selfish she thought middle-class women were -- who
she was labeling white women -- for pursuing a career, a job, and only
thinking of children as an afterthought.
She saw herself as, in some ways, being less selfish and more giving,
because she privileged children, and thought children were the most
important thing in her life; whereas in my life and in other people's
lives, she was assuming that children were only something you did if you
had everything else you wanted.
One of the things that we found in
talking to a number of couples on the West Side of Chicago is that the
number of couples we meet that are not only living together, but are
Right. Very common, again. But if you talk to those couples in depth,
even the engaged couples probably don't have a clear time frame for when
they're going to get married. That's been the most interesting thing we
found when we were analyzing these stories families were telling us. We
look across these stories and we see we have non-engaged couples, we
have engaged couples. Some of the engaged couples have a ring. Some
don't have rings, and I'm sure you've seen that. But in almost all of
the cases, marriage is something that's going to happen down the road.
... But the interesting thing about this timeframe issue is that the
reason people don't seem to have a concrete plan of action with regard
to marriage is because of the obstacles they see between themselves and
marriage. First of all, they want a set of accouterments that come with ... their view of marriage. Usually people list a house, a car, two stable
jobs. OK? Some symbol that the couple has managed to sort of work
together cooperatively toward an economic future. It's not enough for
him to just go out and get these things, and for her to live off his
income. The couple both should be working. This is a very strong norm,
and they should be achieving these things together.
But they also want a big wedding. It's not like the $50,000 weddings
or the $20,000 weddings that the upper-middle class host. They want a
wedding with dresses and tuxedos and a reception at the VFW hall or the
church basement. This is very important to most couples. They don't want
to go down to City Hall, because that's an obligation wedding. That's
the old shotgun weddings of the past, and that's not meaningful. What
they want is to symbolize to their friends and family that they're
really serious about each other.
So couples will tell us all the time, "We don't want to do things
half-assed. We want to do things right this time. I'm going to do this
marriage thing right. I'm going to show reverence for the institution of
marriage and for my partner, by making sure I have everything together,
and that we have no chance of divorcing for either financial reasons or
sort of emotional immaturity reasons, before I'm going to take that
So should we be encouraged or discouraged by what you've found?
It's confusing, because on the one hand, there is this positive drive
toward marriage. But marriage has come to mean such lofty things to both
the poor and the middle class. The middle class are delaying marriage
until they become really, really, really, really established, too, and
their criteria are much higher. The poor just want a mortgage and a
small townhome or a trailer and a couple of cars that work, and a little
bit of savings in the bank. But everybody really wants a piece of this
American dream. They really equate marriage with being stably working
class or middle class, and they don't see that as necessarily
inevitable. I think that's an important point.
In the 1950s, for example, if a young couple were to marry, let's
say, on the West Side of Chicago, they could be relatively certain that
in 10 years they would be able to make a down payment on a modest
rowhome or a small bungalow, as Chicago is so famous for. They would be
able to have a car and a little savings. And that would be just on one
Couples today seem far less sure that they're going to make it. They
seem uncertain of their economic prospects. And they know, because they
watch the divorce statistics that we all watch, that a poor marriage has
no hope of lasting. They're very divorce-averse. This is a very big
theme in our interviews. They're afraid that, if they don't have proof
that they as a couple can achieve these things beforehand, that they'll
be making a bad bet and entering into a relationship that's doomed to
So on the one hand, the encouraging thing is that
couples are romantically involved, presumably not only committed to each
other, but committed to raising these children together. The
discouraging thing is, marriage feels so elusive.
So far away. We have a couple ideas about that, and that's something
we really want to continue to pursue in our interviews with couples. But
it could be that there's less social mobility now than there used to be,
and couples are trying to gauge that. We ask couples, "Tell us about a
good relationship. Tell us about someone you know that has a good
marital relationship." Almost half the couples name the Huxtables as the
only couple they know with a good marriage -- which is the The Cosby
Show couple. Another group name themselves as the best relationship
they know, even if they're not married. Then a small number say, "We have a mentor couple. We have a couple
that we really admire, and we're modeling our relationship after them."
But many of these couples either have only a TV image of marriage or
they have none at all of a positive marital relationship.
So it could be then the absence of being surrounded by a community of
real-life marriages with warts and all, that people's expectations do
become elevated, because they don't see it every day.
Do you think that most of these couples should get
married, that marriage is a good thing, not only for them, but also
for their community?
I guess what I'm most interested in is how much these couples want to
get married. What we're trying to understand in this study is what
breaks them up? Now we're on the babies' second birthday. Most of our
couples are still together. Some have broken up. But that's what we need
to understand now. What are the forces that are bringing couples toward
marriage? Sixteen percent of our couples, for example, have gotten
married since baseline.
So the next question for us is, what leads these couples to these
different trajectories, and beyond that, what couples are able, even
though they're broken up, to be cooperative enough to still provide a
healthy environment for their children -- the father staying involved?
So that's the next goal. We need to observe more breakups. [Laugh]
I guess I'm assuming that you're partly engaged with
this because you think that somehow marriage as an institution is
important, both to family and to community. Am I right?
I think the social science evidence on that is overwhelming, in terms
of marriage being good for children. It is the best environment for
ensuring investments to children that we've invented as humans. Since
I'm an advocate of children, yes, I think that marriage is a very good
thing for children. I don't think many people now would question that
that's true. Whether it's good for women or good for men, I think
there's evidence on both sides. But it's clearly good for children.
... There are some who believe that marriage is
the greatest tool to fight poverty. In fact, you look at what's going
on in Oklahoma -- the very assumption behind that is that if we can get
people married, people can avoid falling into poverty ... maybe even
pull them up.
I would have to say that I disagree with that view. I think it's far
too simple. The poor will tell you the reason they aren't married is
that they're poor. You can reshuffle poverty by putting people into
different configurations, but I think that low-income parents are right
when they say that ... people who can't make ends meet from month to month,
who are frequently unemployed, who then might find they have to make all
kinds of choices they don't want to make, like going on welfare or
taking an illegal job -- these experiences are very stressful on adults.
Adults then begin to behave in ways that can make that relationship very
destructive for both themselves and their children.
The meaning of marriage is changing for everyone. But it's probably
also true that in order to sustain a suitable standard of living and an
environment that's healthy for adults and kids, you have to be able to
have some hope of having your little piece of the American dream. As
income inequality has grown since the 1970s, as people's income
trajectories are less and less sure, and their piece of the American
dream seems more and more elusive, I think it's just very hard to
sustain any hope of marriage. Those marriages will end in divorce. I
don't think anyone is interested in creating more divorces.
So the key is to help couples who want to marry anyway to sustain
positive marital relationships that last. This is also very important to
them. In order to do that, we need to rethink, who really has access to
a piece of the pie? Are we offering enough opportunity for young
couples, prior to having children, to actually achieve the things that
they think they have to achieve in order to sustain a marriage that
could be a healthy environment for a child?
We spent some time in Oklahoma, and they're trying to
really promote marriage. One of the things that they're doing is
offering these premarital classes -- the notion that marriage is
skills-based, and if we can teach people the skills, they'll be more
successful at choosing the right partner and sustaining and maintaining
a good marriage. What is your notion about that?
I think most people object to those programs because they use welfare
dollars, which takes money away from poor women and children who might
need it. That aside, how can it be a bad thing to teach people how to
relate to each other, using the tools of psychology? We could all use
these tools. The idea that we might offer [these tools], either through
the private sector or publicly, can't hurt. I think a lot of us could
benefit from those kind of things.
For poor couples, where there is oftentimes a history of hurt or
there are prior partnerships with children that complicate a
relationship, these things could be very useful. I think the real issue
is: Whose money do you spend on those programs? And who does that
advantage and disadvantage?
... At the moment, President
Bush's administration is planning to spend $300 million to promote
marriage among welfare recipients. Is it a good idea?
I think it's going to be a waste of money on a pragmatic level,
because we still don't really understand enough about poor couples to
hope to craft a pro-marriage policy. I still think that should be left
in the private domain, sort of my own personal philosophy. It's probably
not the business of government. But if government is going to do it, it
might as well do it right. I don't think there's the knowledge base
there in order to do it right. That's precisely what we're trying to do
here -- provide that knowledge base.
What myth do you think people have about what's going on?
I think the myth that the Bush administration is acting upon is this
idea that, wow, there's this magic moment at birth, so all couples need
just a little push and they'll get married, and their problems will be
solved. I don't think we've talked seriously about all of the problems
these couples have, and all of the ways in which, in some cases, you
could do more harm than good. So social scientists are always saying,
"We need more information." But here, I think it's clear that we don't
have enough information to move forward responsibly.
Talk to me a little bit about that magic moment.
The magic moment is complicated. Usually the couple's relationship up
to the moment of birth is very tumultuous. Sometimes the couple's been
together, at least casually, for a couple of years; sometimes not. But
in the process of the nine months leading up to her giving birth, this
couple relationship becomes very intense. Oftentimes couples describe
very loving and supportive relationships during this period.
But other couples describe domestic abuse, loss of temper, he moving
out. It's very, very stressful and tumultuous, particularly on the guy,
because the guy who was the perfectly good boyfriend, who could buy you
dinner at McDonalds, is suddenly a really lousy prospective father,
because he doesn't have enough money to pay first and last month's rent
so you can get an apartment together. So her expectations of him ratchet
up exponentially during this nine months of pregnancy, and he really
feels the heat.
Then the baby is born. The couple comes together around this moment.
And it's not that these plans to marry aren't real, that couples haven't
been talking, over the nine months of their relationship about getting
married, because many of them have. The poor recognize, like everyone
else, that marriage is a good environment to raise kids in. But then the
baby comes home, and things get complicated, especially when she returns
to work. Maybe he loses his job, or he can't pay the rent, and they
end up moving back in with her mother.
So there are these plans to marry; there are these high hopes; but
couples ... say, "We'll get married when we're 'here.'" And there's
five years between "here" and "here."
So the magic, it's real. But to take it at face value could be
After this interview, we're headed to a hospital to
experience that magic moment with a couple. What's the question you'd
want to ask them?
I think what I would ask them is what they were afraid of. In the
magic moment, couples talk about their dreams and their hopes, but I
suspect, based on what they say to us shortly after the ... birth, that
they're terrified in some senses as well. Maybe particularly him,
because things have changed so dramatically for him. In our culture and
in lower-class culture, this breadwinning role for men is still very
much held by both men and by women. So I want to know about what the
couple is afraid of, not just what they're hopeful about.
I keep on thinking about [the book] Tally's Corner --
men just hanging out on the corner, and whether in fact there's been
some gradual and very subtle shift in recent years -- that people other
than folks like yourself have not really paid attention to.
What has happened is that the pool of men who find themselves sharing
a non-custodial birth with a woman has become more diverse. More men are
ending up at this situation; more women as well. So they have a more
heterogeneous set of characteristics.
But at the same time, it's not that our fathers who we're looking at
right now, who most of them still look pretty stable and pretty good,
aren't going to end up on the corner two years from now. We're catching
them at the most stable parts of their life course. They do get
gradually more stable. ...
Another study that we're doing of just fathers in three cities, we
find that although fathers really want their children to redeem them,
and they really want to do right by their children, and they're
tremendously motivated to get it together, to leave a life of crime or
whatever when they have their children, sometimes it doesn't take.
Life intervenes. They begin feeling like such failures. They abandon
those roles. What's really interesting is how devastating that is for
young fathers. So this young man that we're looking at, saying, "I'm
going to marry the mother," may be on the corner in four years.
I think I may have mentioned this to you a while back.
But about 15 years ago, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and Vince
Lane who was heading it, was taking the buildings back from the gangs.
One of the things that was really frustrating was these buildings --
it'd be all these men living there, but not on the lease. [Lane] found a
guy hiding in the laundry hamper, another guy hiding in a closet. He
said, "OK, guys, you want to stay here? Get married." So they had this
grand wedding in the city. People donated the gowns and the cakes. The
CHA paid for a honeymoon -- a kind of citywide shotgun wedding, if you
will. I think it was eight families. I think only one of those marriages
have lasted. Does that tell us anything?
Maybe that tells us that what our couples are saying isn't so crazy
after all. Maybe one does have to marry well, at least in a modest
working-class sense, to sustain a marriage. At the very least, a couple
has to have some level of financial stability. It's not about just
having enough money to pay the rent. It's about having enough money to
sustain a lifestyle that's conducive to healthy adult relationships,
which then confer benefits on kids.
It's really interesting that poor families seem to know this. But
what they don't know is how to get from where they are to what that is.
So they don't have a road map for how to get there. But they know what a
good marriage is, and they know they're not going to settle for anything
When you listen to the public policy makers, their
sense is that people who are marrying, they've got these crazy notions
about love and romance, and they're entering it frivolously. But just
the opposite is taking place in these communities.
Totally. That's the really worrisome thing about the policies,
because what's really going on here is that a lot of the policy crafting
that's going on is going to be preaching to the choir. The poor already
take marriage so seriously that it's impossible to conceive of a program
that could increase marriage by making them take it even more seriously.
A much more sensible approach would be to give couples a road map for
how they get from where they are to where they think they need to
You say, "Give them a road map," meaning?
What does it really take to sustain a marriage? Most of our couples
don't know other married couples that they would point to as having good
relationships. So it could be, for example, that a program that would
offer constructive models of positive marriage, mentoring, kind of
marriage mentoring, would be far more effective than a program that's
preaching to the choir, saying, "You people, why don't you just take
marriage more seriously? Don't you realize how important it is?"
Do you think that also part of what's going on now is a sense of a
kind of moral judgment about what takes place in these communities?
Oh, definitely. Definitely. And what's crazy about that is that we're
assuming that the middle class are behaving like they were in the 1950s,
and that only the poor have changed. But if you look at the behavior of
the poor with regard to marriage and compare it to that of the middle
class, and you take the childbearing piece out of it, what's the
difference? In some sense, the exact same thing is going on.
So I think the poor are really taking the cue from the middle class.
There's a lot of evidence for that in our data. Are we going to be able
to convince the middle class to change their behavior, and to stay
married, and to get married earlier, and to have sort of a lower bar for
marriage? Because the bar for marriage among the middle class seems to
me to be extraordinarily high -- to have these same components of
financial stability and this sort of emotional readiness, kind of a very
high standard for emotional readiness. So how do we tell the poor to be
different than that, if the middle class is setting the standard? How do
we have a different standard for the poor?
You mentioned that when couples talk about marriage,
they don't really talk about kids in it. Can you talk about
One thing that's pretty striking in reading these interview
transcripts is how marriage talk is almost completely divorced from
child talk. It's very striking in the interviews. Marriage is something
that adults do. It's not that couples don't recognize that it's not
better for kids to be in marriages, because they think that it is. But
in their particular situation, they really see it as a decision that two
adults are making, right? And that one shouldn't marry just for the
kids. No one believes that one should marry for the betterment of the
So the old sort of thing that spurred the shotgun marriage just isn't
believed anymore -- to get married just for the kids, well, that's no
good. That's certain to fail. So really marriage is about a relationship
between two adults, and childbearing is about something else.
Now, it's not that the mother doesn't count on the father. She hopes
and plans for him to be involved in her child's life, irrespective of
whether he continues to be involved with her. But the way it works out,
the couple has problems, the father drifts away; the woman ends up
bearing the sole emotional and financial cost of the child. That, by the
way, is a really bad deal for women. [Laugh]
We say marriage is bad for women; we have to sort of look at the
alternative, and that is bearing the entire cost of the kid.