Low-Income Couples Marry Less But Divorce More

Poor people value marriage just as much as affluent people and have similar romantic standards for marriage, according to research published in Journal of Marriage and Family. While poorer people and more affluent people have similar values, socioeconomic factors play a role in a higher divorce rate among people with lower income levels.

The research, “What’s (Not) Wrong With Low-Income Marriages”
 by Thomas E. Trail and Benjamin R. Karney of  the University of California at Los Angeles, suggests that government efforts to strengthen marriage among poor people should move beyond promoting marriage and concentrate on the actual problems that low-income couples face, such as money problems, drinking and drug use.

Research suggested that poorer people value the economic aspects of marriage more, such as having a good job. It seems reasonable that stresses, such as losing a job or failing to pay a mortgage, erode marriages, and that other “social issues,” such as drug or alcohol addiction, undermine them.

The study analyzed results from a survey of 6,012 people. Trail and Karney found that, compared to wealthier people, those with lower incomes held similar values toward marriage and were less likely to approve of divorce. However, poorer people were more likely than the wealthy to value the economic aspects of marriage, including the husband and wife having good jobs.“Prompted by the belief that the institution of marriage is in crisis among the poor, the federal government has spent $1 billion on initiatives to strengthen marriage among low-income populations,” said Dr. Karney. “Often these are based on the assumption that there must be something wrong with how people on low incomes view marriage or that they just are not very good at managing intimate relationships.”

Previous research has shown that divorce rates are higher and marriage rates are lower among poorer populations in the United States, but the researchers found that generally poorer respondents hold more traditional views about marriage than respondents on higher incomes.

Low-income and high-income respondents reported similar romantic standards and similar problems with relationship processes such as communication, but poorer people were more likely than affluent couples to report that economic and social problems attacked their romantic relationships. “Over the past 15 years, efforts to tackle declining marriage rates and increasing divorce rates among low-income couples in the USA have been guided by assumptions about why there are fewer low-income marriages and why a higher percentage fail.” said Dr Trail. “The aim of our study was to separate the myth from the reality.”

Earlier research focused on specific low-income groups – unmarried mothers and cohabiting couples with children. This study used a comprehensive method that compared the attitudes and experiences of people from a range of incomes. The findings provide important new information about how similar people with low and high incomes compare in their values, standards, and experiences of marriage.

“We found that people with low incomes value marriage as an institution, have similar standards for choosing a marriage partner and experience similar problems with managing their relationships,” concluded Trail. “We suggest that initiatives to strengthen marriage among the poor should also take social issues into account, as they can place a tremendous amount of stress on a marriage.”

Trail and Karney solicited the views of a stratified random sample from Florida, California, Texas, and New York. Their average age of the respondents was just under 46 years, and the respondents were racially mixed. Telephone interviews with them lasted an average of 27 minutes. Self-reported income put 29% in the low-income category, 26% in the moderate-income category and 35% in the high-income category, and just under 10% were receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

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