American Sociological Association

Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy in America


January 18, 2017

In 1996, Congress overhauled welfare policy to promote work, marriage, and responsible fatherhood for American families living in poverty. This led to the creation of the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative—often referred to as marriage promotion policy—which has spent almost $1 billion since 2002 to fund hundreds of relationship and marriage education programs. I observed over 500 hours of healthy marriage classes, analyzed 20 government-approved marriage education curricula, and interviewed low-income parents who took classes to answer the following question: What does the implementation of healthy marriage policy reveal about political understandings of how romantic experiences, relationship behaviors, and marital choices are primary mechanisms of inequality?

Proposing Prosperity takes the reader inside the marriage education classroom to show how healthy marriage policy promotes the idea that preventing poverty depends on individuals’ abilities to learn about what I call skilled love. This is a romantic paradigm that assumes individuals can learn to love in line with long-term marital commitment by developing rational romantic values, emotional competencies, and interpersonal habits. Healthy marriage policy promotes skilled love as a strategy for preventing risky and financially costly relationships choices and, consequently, as the essential link among marriage, financial stability, and upward mobility. Central to this message is the assumption that upward economic mobility is teachable and that romantic competence and well-informed intimate choices can help disadvantaged families overcome financial constraints and deprivation.

Though healthy marriage policy assumes that developing relationship skills creates better marriages, which in turn lead to financial prosperity, the low-income couples I interviewed believed that marriage represents the culmination of prosperity, not a means to attain it. I describe how cultural and economic changes in marriage throughout the twentieth century have created a middle-class marriage culture in which low-income couples are less likely to marry for both ideological and financial reasons. Couples told me they could neither afford nor prioritize marriage until they were more financially stable. I detail their relationship stories to illustrate how financial challenges lead to curtailed commitment, especially when marriage between two economically unstable partners seems like a bad financial risk. Marriage educators responded to this by deliberately avoiding talk of marriage and instead emphasizing committed co-parenting as the primary resource parents have to support their children’s life chances.

Though parents frequently challenged instructors’ claims that marriage could help them, their children, and their finances, parents did find the classes useful. While couples’ economic challenges made it hard to practice the skills, participants experienced the classes as a rare opportunity to communicate free of the material constraints that shaped their daily lives and romantic relationships. Hearing other low-income couples talk about their challenges with love and money normalized parents’ intimate struggles and allowed them to better understand how relationship conflict and unfulfilled hopes for marriage are shaped by poverty. This finding suggests that publicly sponsored relationship education could be a valuable social service in a highly unequal society where stable, happy marriages are increasingly becoming a privilege of the most advantaged couples. Yet, low-income parents’ experiences with healthy marriage classes point to how relationship policies would likely be more useful if they focused more on how economic stressors take an emotional toll on romantic relationships and less on promoting the dubious message that marriage directly benefits poor families.

Proposing Prosperity will be of interest to scholars of sex and gender because it reveals how state-funded relationship skills programs reflect broader issues of gender, governance, and social inequality. I specifically show how marriage education programs strategically employ gendered and heteronormative ideologies of parenting to promote fathers’ limited care of children. Classes taught that both mothers and fathers are necessary for children’s well-being. They also redefined marriageability for poor fathers by emphasizing how men could prove their commitment to their families in ways that do not require money. Once committed, marriage would presumably enable them to be more responsible workers, make more money, and pull their families out of poverty. Through the promotion of what I term marital masculinity, healthy marriage programs ultimately reinforce the stereotype of the hard-working married father who is worthy of higher wages and job advancement because of his gendered family responsibilities; this perpetuates the discriminatory ideas underlying the marriage premium in earnings for men and the tendency for more privileged men to capitalize on it.

I also show how healthy marriage programs’ focus on relationship skills obscures the insidious effects of institutionalized inequalities—specifically classism, sexism, racism, and heterosexism—on romantic and economic opportunity. “Skills” were often an ideological cover for normative understandings of intimate life that privilege the two-parent, heterosexually married family. Marriage educators presented a selective interpretation of research that deceptively characterizes the social and economic benefits of marriage as a unidirectional causal relationship without accounting for how selection and discrimination shape the connection between marriage and economic prosperity.

Among the book’s policy recommendations, I make a case for a broader sociologically informed relationship policy that recognizes the benefits and costs of marriage and teaches under what specific social and economic conditions marriage is typically beneficial. I argue that any policy with the goal of promoting family stability and equality must contend with the intimate inequalities that lead to curtailed commitments, especially those related to gender. Programs that link economic prosperity with marriage will likely only reinforce couples’ tendencies to make marital decisions based on the middle-class marriage bar and the male breadwinner ethic. Classist gender norms, such as those embedded in marital masculinity, make it harder for partners, especially men, to seem worthy of marriage. It is misguided for policy to focus on teaching couples to communicate and budget more effectively without also addressing the outdated gender ideologies and growing economic disparities that influence their romantic relationships. The most effective policy approach to proposing prosperity will not be grounded in expectations of self-sufficiency and men’s breadwinning, which tend to undermine, rather than promote, stable relationships among low-income couples. Instead, it will reflect how love and commitment thrive most within the context of social and economic opportunity and equal recognition and support for all families, married and unmarried alike. 

Jennifer M. Randles is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research explores how inequalities affect American family life and how policies address family-formation trends. Proposing Prosperity was published December 2016.

This article originally appeared ASA Section on Sex and Gender November 2016 newsletter.

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