NEWARK, N.J. — Although they've yet to set a date, Gata Negrra and her partner Ronald Moore of Newark like to brainstorm ideas for their wedding. "We're big geeks when it comes to thinking of the stuff we'd like to do," Negrra said. "We've thought of doing an anime theme or a Pirates of the Caribbean party."
But right now marriage feels impossible for the couple, who have been together for five years and have three children between them. "We could just go to city hall," Negrra said, "but I want (our marriage) to feel like a celebration."
Negra doesn't have anything opulent in mind. "I know there are people who spend $1,000 on a wedding and get something really nice," she said. Even that feels like an impossible sum for the couple whose combined income is so low they qualify for subsidized housing that puts their monthly rent at $157.
Negrra and Moore are representative of a growing trend among low-income minority couples. Since the 1960s, there has been a dramatic decline in marriages among this group of Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's newly released 2011 Population Survey.
Only 70 to 75 percent of African-American women can expect to get married in their lifetime, compared to 91 percent of white women, according to research by Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
One of the most commonly cited reasons for delaying marriage by women in this group is they just can't afford it. This has led some experts to argue that declining marriages are a result of poverty. But according to Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, low-income couples would be better off if they just got married. Poverty isn't the cause of declining marriage, he claims, it is the effect of forgoing matrimony.
Marriage and money
Reality television programs perpetuate the idea that it is possible to have a wedding with all the trimmings for next to nothing. But for a bride who wants the white dress and flowers and a reception there are some hard numbers. For example, wedding dresses don't come cheap. "You don't get a traditional wedding gown for less than $300," said Stacy Van Dusen, owner of Fantasy Bridal in Taylorsville. "We usually advise brides to spend about 10 percent of their overall budget on a dress," she said. That means even if a bride is able to snag a gown for $300, the wedding is going to set the couple back $3,000.
Although weddings can be expensive, most couples come out ahead after marriage, Caplan said. "Being single is more expensive than being married," he added. "Picture two singles living separately. If they marry, they sharply cut their total housing costs. They cut the total cost of furniture, appliances, fuel and health insurance. Even groceries get cheaper: think Costco," he wrote on his blog Econlog. The impact of these savings are especially pronounced among the poor, according to Charles Murray, author of "Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010."
But marriage does more than just cut expenses, according to Caplan. It actually raises couples' incomes, according to data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Even when accounting for IQ, education, experience and race, married men earn about 40 percent more than comparable single men. Married women on the other hand earn about 10 percent less than comparable single women. "From a couple's point of view, that's a big net bonus," Caplan said.
So if marriage improves a couple's bottom line, why are dwindling marriage rates concentrated among the poor? One explanation is that "disadvantaged men and women highly value marriage but believe they are currently unable to meet the high standards of relationship quality and financial stability they believe are necessary to sustain a marriage and avoid divorce," according to Kathryn Edin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University.
This is another way of saying that expectations about how life should be before marriage prevent people from actually getting married. They may not have enough money for a down payment on a house, or the funds to pay for a wedding celebration. This is certainly part of what holds Negrra and Moore back.
Another possibility is that disadvantaged women want to get married but have difficulty finding suitable partners. "It is easy to spin a hypothetical scenario in which marrying off single mothers to an average male would raise family incomes and reduce poverty," wrote Stephanie Coontz in a discussion paper for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit think tank based at the University of Miami. But unmarried males in impoverished neighborhoods are not average, according to Coontz.
Researchers from the Center for Research on Child Well-Being at Princeton University reported that results from the Fragile Families Survey show unmarried fathers were twice as likely as married ones to have a physical or psychological problem that interfered with their ability to find or keep a job, and several times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. More than 25 percent of unmarried fathers were not employed when their child was born, compared to fewer than 10 percent of married fathers.
Another factor contributing to the decline of marriage in this group is the rise of women's earnings relative to those of men. As women's wages increase, fewer rely on their spouse to support them, according to Cherlin at Johns Hopkins. Data released by the Pew Research Center suggest that the number of women who out-earn their husbands is rapidly growing.
The higher earning capacity of women and the declining prospects for young men without college degrees are key factors contributing to the decline in marriage in recent years, said Cherlin. Moreover, the recession has exacerbated this trend because it has disproportionately impacted unskilled male workers.
Caplan posits a controversial explanation derived from behavioral economics. "Some people are impulsive and short-sighted," he said. "If you're one of them, you tend to mess up your life in every way," he said. People who lack impulse control are less likely to invest in their careers or relationships, according to Caplan. "They put short-term desires first, which hurts their long-term prospects," he said.
Of people in this situation, Caplan said, "You refuse to swallow your pride — to admit that the best job and the best spouse you can get, though far from ideal, are much better than nothing. Your behavior feels good at the time. But in the long run people see you for what you are, and you end up poor and alone."
Though complex issues make many low-income couples hesitant to tie the knot, smart policy and programs that directly address the things holding these couples back will increase their rates of marriage, according to Theodora Ooms, a policy analyst at the Center on Law and Social Policy.
Fiscal incentives, according to Ooms, can be particularly effective among those who feel they cannot afford to get married. Removing the marriage penalty from the tax code may alleviate some of the pressure that working-class couples feel. States may also consider revising their eligibility rules for welfare, said Ooms. Currently most states offer less social assistance to two-parent families and penalize those who marry.
In an effort to promote marriage and the financial well-being of its residents, West Virginia recently changed its welfare benefit structure so married couples receive a 10-percent higher monthly allowance than single parents.
Another way to address the economic barriers to marriage would be to offer welfare fathers job training and employment assistance on the same basis as agencies offer this assistance to welfare mothers, suggested Ooms.
Governments can also signal the importance of marriage by creating public education programs that outline the benefits of legal union for families. For example, the Virginia Health Department is using state funds for a public education program designed to prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancy among women 20-29 and to promote the message that marriage is the right place for a child to be born. The Florida Bar Association developed a marriage handbook which is given to all couples who apply for a marriage license in the state.
Many marriage advocates believe that information and education about marriage should be as widely available as information and education on parenting. Successful initiatives might include high school courses on developing relationship skills, marriage workshops for young couples and intensive therapy weekends for those in troubled marriages.
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