Can Marriage Fix Poverty?

I was on panel discussion on poverty a few weeks ago, when NY Times reporter Jason de Parle asked me, in what he said was a spirit of devil’s advocacy, why I slighted marriage as a solution to poverty. Actually, I’d barely begun to slight it—I’d just mentioned that it is the Bush administration’s favored anti-poverty strategy, when the audience, and especially the women in it, broke out into laughter.

De Parle was right to say that married couples do much better financially than single mothers, if only because the single moms lack a male breadwinner. But every time I think of marriage as an anti-poverty program, my mind flips back to a woman I met while researching Nickel and Dimed. She was a deeply religious African American woman, an evangelical Christian, and she broke into tears as she told me that her husband beat her when he got drunk, which was as often as he could find the time for it. (Just to confound any residual racial stereotypes you may have, the husband, whom I met, was white.)

She wanted to leave him, and had tried it once, but the hard fact was that she and the two children could not survive on her $10 an hour clerical job. He was no winner, but his $11 an hour contribution to the household made him, tragically, a keeper. The Bush administration would no doubt approve, because that’s our official policy: Stand by your man.

But why a man? Another thing that struck me in my Nickel and Dimed research was how often low-wage people teamed up in roommate situations, just to make rent. A single Florida waitress briefly shared a room with a male friend. Two young housecleaners in Maine, one the single mother of a toddler, rented an apartment together. These were not the most stable arrangements: The waitress moved out when her friend began to hit on her; the childless roommate in Maine got tired of the toddler. But while they lasted, these rent-sharing relationships helped pay the bills.

If the point is simply to increase the number of wage earners per rent bill, then marriage is hardly the only solution. There’s grandma, for example. According to the NY Times, one of the fastest growing types of households in American is the multigenerational household—grandparents, parents, and children. Grandma may have thought she was going to spend her golden years dancing in her living room to old Doors albums, but her kids and their kids need a place to stay, plus free babysitting thrown in. Even some of the more affluent are taking the multigen route, opting for houses with “bedroom suites” with private entrances – for the college grad child who has embarked on his or her life as a waitperson.

And let’s face it, what gives immigrant workers a leg up is their ability to tolerate residential crowding. Anyone who thinks that there are jobs that native-born people won’t put up with has probably never seen a native-born American sweat outside of a gym. We native-borns will do anything – clean houses, dig ditches, pluck poultry. We just hesitate to share a bedroom with three or four unrelated folks.

But I’ve met immigrant workers who lived six to a two-bedroom apartment, or who had nothing to go “home” to but a cot in a dorm. Maybe they’re a little less fussy about privacy; most likely, they fervently believe that their situation is temporary.

If the current gross mis-match between wages and rents continues, we’re going to something a little more robust than Bush’s “marriage promotion” policy. I have an idea, and it’s called a commune: Get together with some friends, divide the chores, make up some rules about noise and guests, and rent a place that none of you could afford on your own. My husband and I did it as young parents in the 70s, and, yes, there were occasional tensions, but we got space for our children and ended up with friendships that have lasted ever since.

Somehow, though, I don’t think the Bush administration will go for my plan.

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