Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Marriage and Poverty

"He is the Bestower, the Bounteous!

Praise be to God, the Ancient, the Ever-Abiding, the Changeless, the Eternal! He Who hath testified in His Own Being that verily He is the One, the Single, the Untrammelled, the Exalted. We bear witness that verily there is no God but Him, acknowledging His oneness, confessing His singleness. He hath ever dwelt in unapproachable heights, in the summits of His loftiness, sanctified from the mention of aught save Himself, free from the description of aught but Him.

And when He desired to manifest grace and beneficence to men, and to set the world in order, He revealed observances and created laws; among them He established the law of marriage, made it as a fortress for well-being and salvation, and enjoined it upon us in that which was sent down out of the heaven of sanctity in His Most Holy Book. He saith, great is His glory: "Marry, O people, that from you may appear he who will remember Me amongst My servants; this is one of My commandments unto you; obey it as an assistance to yourselves."

- Bahá'u'lláh

Today is Blog Action Day and the topic this year is poverty. I've chosen to blog about the relationship between marriage and poverty. A variety of voices have emerged in the early part of the 21st century, trumpeting marriage as the best path out of poverty. Here's an example:

The Effect of Marriage on Child Poverty
by Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., and Patrick F. Fagan
Center for Data Analysis Report #02-04

The 1960s War on Poverty was intended to eliminate child poverty nationwide through a variety of income transfers and human development programs. However, during the first three decades of the War on Poverty, there was little net decline in the child poverty rate. In 1965 (the year when the first War on Poverty programs were initiated), the child poverty rate was 20.7 percent.1 Thirty years later, in 1996 (the last year before the implementation of welfare reform), the child poverty rate was only slightly lower at 19.8 percent.2

The lack of progress in reducing child poverty since 1965 can be explained in part by the erosion of marriage and the growth of poverty-prone single-parent families. Two sets of facts make this point clear:

  • The poverty rate for all children in married-couple families is 8.2 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate for all children in single-parent families is four times higher at 35.2 percent.3
  • The number of single-parent families has grown considerably since the onset of the War on Poverty. In 1960, less than 12 percent of children lived in single-parent families. By 2000, that figure had more than doubled, rising to 27.6 percent. (Read the whole report here)

One of the unfortunate things about this promising area of research is that it is sometimes presented in an ideologically driven way where marriage promotion is somehow in competition with other efforts at poverty alleviation rather than a complement to them. There can also be a tone of self righteous judgment toward the poor implying that they are poor because they are bad people who somehow just refuse to get married. Research from New York University discovered that more traditional poverty reduction initiatives may actually make it more likely that poor people get married:

"Most marriage-promotion programs for lower-income single mothers focus on improving relationship skills or increasing employment. However, little information exists on the long-term effects on marriage of more direct anti-poverty approaches.

Implemented in two Milwaukee neighborhoods in the mid to late 1990’s, the New Hope Project provided participants--low-income parents working 30 hours a week or more--the following benefits over a three-year period: a wage supplement that brought their income above the poverty line; child care and health insurance subsidies; a minimum-wage community service job for those unable to find work on their own; and support from program representatives for finding and maintaining work. The program ended in 1998.

Gassman-Pines and Yoshikawa evaluated the New Hope Project’s impact on marriage using an experimental, random-assignment design of 400 single mothers. Single mothers assigned to the New Hope condition in a lottery-like process were eligible for all of the programs’ benefits, while those assigned to the control condition were not. In a comparison of the two groups five years after random assignment, 21 percent of the New Hope program group reported being married, while only 12 percent of the control group reported being married. The study period was 1996 to 2001.

"Our results show that marriage is not simply a matter of values, but also economics," said Yoshikawa. "The New Hope Project, which boosted both work and income, nearly doubled the probability of marriage among never-married mothers. Marriage promotion programs currently underway should test income support and poverty reduction as promising avenues toward increasing marriage rates among single mothers."

I'm reminded of this commentary from the Universal House of Justice:

"The inordinate disparity between rich and poor, a source of acute suffering, keeps the world in a state of instability, virtually on the brink of war. Few societies have dealt effectively with this situation. The solution calls for the combined application of spiritual, moral and practical approaches. A fresh look at the problem is required, entailing consultation with experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines, devoid of economic and ideological polemics, and involving the people directly affected in the decisions that must urgently be made. It is an issue that is bound up not only with the necessity for eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty but also with those spiritual verities the understanding of which can produce a new universal attitude. Fostering such an attitude is itself a major part of the solution."
(The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 3)

From a Baha'i perspective, marriage is a law of God with profound spiritual and social implications. Efforts to promote adherence to this law, whether through encouraging the poor to marry or providing the spiritual, social and economic supports that increase the likelihood of marriage have great potential. In order to fulfill this potential however, all involved must be helped to develop the "new universal attitude" identified by the Universal House of Justice. This attitude is founded upon recognition of the oneness of humankind:

"Material civilization has reached an advanced plane, but now there is need of spiritual civilization. Material civilization alone will not satisfy; it cannot meet the conditions and requirements of the present age; its benefits are limited to the world of matter. There is no limitation to the spirit of man, for spirit in itself is progressive, and if the divine civilization be established, the spirit of man will advance. Every developed susceptibility will increase the effectiveness of man. Discoveries of the real will become more and more possible, and the influence of divine guidance will be increasingly recognized. All this is conducive to the divine form of civilization. This is what is meant in the Bible by the descent of the New Jerusalem. The heavenly Jerusalem is none other than divine civilization, and it is now ready. It is to be and shall be organized, and the oneness of humankind will be a visible fact. Humanity will then be brought together as one. The various religions will be united, and different races will be known as one kind. The Orient and Occident will be conjoined, and the banner of international peace will be unfurled. The world shall at last find peace, and the equalities and rights of men shall be established. The capacity of humankind will be tested, and a degree shall be attained where equality is a reality.

All the peoples of the world will enjoy like interests, and the poor shall possess a portion of the comforts of life. Just as the rich are surrounded by their luxuries in palaces, the poor will have at least their comfortable and pleasant places of abode; and just as the wealthy enjoy a variety of food, the needy shall have their necessities and no longer live in poverty."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 101)