Partnered, but still poor

Regina Baker, an assistant professor of sociology, challenges literature that touts marriage as a cure for poverty.

Want to avoid being poor? Get married.

That’s advice federal policymakers have been peddling since 1965, when assistant labor secretary Daniel Moynihan issued a report blaming the prevalence of single motherhood among Black families for America’s racial wealth gap. The publication sparked a flurry of marriage-promoting policies that has persisted for decades; presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all introduced programs endorsing two-parent households.

Regina Baker.
Regina Baker, assistant professor of sociology. (Image: OMNIA)

Academic scholarship has long echoed Moynihan’s claims, bolstering the argument that marriage breeds economic stability. But glaring oversights render many studies involving families, poverty, and racial inequality inadequate, according to Regina Baker, assistant professor of sociology.

“Research kind of hit a brick wall and stopped at this behavioral perspective, focusing on individual decisions—in this case, Black women having kids out of wedlock,” Baker says. “People were not even thinking about the roles American history, racism, and systems of oppression play in reproducing poverty. How can you study racial inequality but not explore these very real contextual factors?”

Baker has been striving to do just that, including in her paper “Family Structure, Risks, and Racial Stratification in Poverty,” co-authored by sociologist Deadric Williams from the University of Tennessee and published in the journal Social Problems. The pair contends that although single-parent families in the U.S.—more of which are Black and Latinx than white—do experience poverty at higher rates than households with married partners, family structure alone could not explain the disparities.

“If marriage is the answer to poverty, then when we look at the economic resources of married families across racialized groups, they should all be about the same, right?” Baker says. “So why do we see that poverty rates are consistently higher among married Black and Latinx families as compared to their white counterparts? Clearly, the impact of marriage is not the same for everybody.”

This story is by Karen Brooks. Read more at OMNIA.