Let's Get Married (home page)
are they right?
interview: kathryn edin

Tell me a little bit about your national survey on "fragile families" and how you came to it.

We're following 75 couples that we identify in the hospital as they give birth. Most of them are unmarried couples, although a small number are married. They're mostly low- to moderate-income families. They're from Chicago, Milwaukee, and New York. We're taking these couples and following them very intensely, hopefully, for four years.

Right now the babies are just turning two, so we're about to go out a third time and interview all the families again. But I think so far we've interviewed each person in the study nine times. So it's a lot. When the study is through, each person will have had 14 or 15 different interactions with us.

One thing that's pretty striking in reading these transcripts is how marriage talk is almost completely divorced from child talk  they really see it as a decision that two adults are making.  And that one shouldn't marry just for the kids.

We watch them as a couple, and we talk to them as individuals. So we really take a look at the couple's relationship and try to understand its dynamics, as well as understanding couples' views about marriage, cohabitation, the role of childbearing, and all of that; what they think makes for a good mom or good dad; what they thinks makes for a good relationship; when a couple's ready for marriage. We talk about all these questions in depth.

... What really struck me in those interviews was how many people talked about the desire to get married. I would go back and talk to my friends in academia and they would say, "Oh, they can't mean that." But I would hear it again and again. So when I began publishing my results and people started saying, "Why don't these couples just get married?" I actually was quite excited about taking that as a serious research question.

So you found out that for these single parents, they weren't necessarily happy or content being single parents.

Right. Now, some have clearly given up on marriage altogether. You know, cases of domestic violence. There's a lot of mistrust between men and women in low-[income] communities oftentimes. That's fueled by lots of things, like violence and the drug economy and a lack of jobs, and just hard economic times bring stress to couple relationships.

But yes, [the desire for marriage] was very strong. In some ways, I didn't want to believe it. But it was really there. As a good ethnographer, you have to listen to your data. You have to take seriously what your respondents are telling you, and not just wish it away.

Now, you say, in some ways you didn't want to believe it -- because?

Well, it was not something that other academics were talking about. I was a young woman, just finishing my graduate degree, and I thought, "Oh, my gosh, if I start talking about this, I'll never get an academic job." What do you do with that in terms of policy? I think this is exactly the difficulty that we're seeing now.

photo of edin

Edin is an associate professor of sociology at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and director of its Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study which is examining attitudes toward marriage and childbearing among low-income single women and couples. She discusses some of the findings to date, including the widespread acceptance of having children out of wedlock and how, contrary to conventional wisdom, low-income single women think too much of marriage -- not too little -- and that's why they defer or avoid marriage so long. This interview was conducted on May 21, 2002.

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 happen.

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 classes.

... 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 engaged.

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 step."

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 income.

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 failure.

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 profoundly misleading.

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 less.

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 be.

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 that?

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 kids.

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.

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