Commentary Family

Marital Status Doesn’t Cause Poverty—Not Having Money Does

Amanda Marcotte

Conservatives have been turning up the volume on the irrational, unevidenced claim that poverty is caused by not being married. In reality, poverty is caused by not having enough money. This should be obvious, but it clearly needs to be said more often.

The uncontrolled woman who needs to be brought under the firm guidance of a man has long been a favorite villainous figure in the right-wing imagination, and lately one that might be the number one target for many social ills. The main reason is that growing income inequality and startling statistics—such as the fact that one in three Americans experienced poverty between 2009 and 2011—are making the discussion of economic justice unavoidable. And so, unable to just ignore the discussion completely, conservatives have decided to blame a favorite scapegoat—women who make sexual choices they disagree with—for the “choice” not to get married.

The strangest thing about the attacks on single women, especially single mothers, is how much conservatives seem to believe that women are actively avoiding marriage. To hear right-wing pundits and politicians talk, there are suitors lined up around the block for every single woman, but she refuses to accept them because, poisoned by feminism, she refuses to hear their pleas for love. You’d think, after immersing yourself in conservative arguments blaming single women for widespread poverty, that women are naturally repulsed by men and will only be with them out of necessity. Or that women have never heard of this nifty thing called “marriage” and just need some talking heads and op-ed columnists to sell them on the idea.

Media Matters rounded up some examples of this, the funniest of which is almost surely Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker’s, who seems to think people are poor because no one told them getting married is awesome. “[M]arriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times,” she writes. Poor people: Parker knows you must be too stupid to want love, but she’s here to tell you that it’s great. Magic, even. Magical enough to cause money to start streaming into your bank account.

Parker scolds Republicans who “insinuate that single mothers are using welfare to avoid marriage,” suggesting that this is not a helpful thing to say. (Perhaps they would do better to imitate Parker and instead insinuate that poor people are ignorant of this institution “marriage” and indifferent to the appeal of love.) I imagine that she’s thinking of Republicans like Louie Gohmert, whose absolute bone-shaking fury that women who have children but aren’t married would prefer not to starve to death is, by his own measure, the reason he became a politician. Or perhaps she’s thinking of John Stossel, who recently tried to blame the “war on poverty” for making people poor by letting women off the hook with regard to marriage. (In reality, the “war on poverty” worked.)

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In Parker’s eyes, the bad guy is the all-powerful reach of evil feminism:

Democrats avoid the M-word for fear of trespassing on important constituent turfs, especially women’s. For many women, the push for marriage is seen as subterfuge for reversing their hard-won gains.

Conservative bashers of single women, can’t you all just get along? Can’t it be a both/and fantasy, where low-income women, high on their women’s studies-based hatred of matrimony, have collectively decided to strike against men and their right to be cooked and cleaned for by turning to the welfare system instead? (Remember, the possibility that women might actually work for a living is pointedly ignored in this entire discourse. As is the possibility that many women who receive government assistance also work. Or are married. Or both.) Since you’re just making it all up anyway, why not go whole hog?

Being a good liberal, I’m generally a big fan of complexity and nuance, but interestingly enough, there are two issues that conservatives are making needlessly complicated in their effort to avoid talking about the real problem here: 1) why people are poor; and 2) why people are single. Both have simple, straightforward reasons. Of course, they are reasons that conservatives ignore, because admitting those reasons tends to make the solutions obvious—and the solutions are not things conservatives want to hear.

Why are people poor? Because they don’t have enough money. This is true regardless of what their personal choices are with regards to sex and family structure. The solution to the problem therefore is to get more money into their pockets by giving it to them. Two tried-and-true methods that have worked before: raising wages and directly giving money to poor people. That these things work is not a controversial statement in the reality-based world. The only reason they’re in dispute at all is because conservatives object on principle.

Why are people single? It is true that there’s a small percentage of people who don’t want to be in long-term, committed relationships that are formalized through marriage. But, on the whole, people aren’t married for one reason, and one reason only: They don’t have anyone suitable to be married to. Contrary to paranoid fantasies on the right, there isn’t a widespread marriage boycott organized by welfare offices, feminists, or some combination of the two. Most people want to be married, when they meet the right person. Low-income people value marriage more than people higher up the income ladder. So they’re really just holding out for true love. It’s the one thing that real life has in common with a romantic comedy.

Now, why it’s harder to find someone to be married to than it used to be is a bit more complex of a question. Ironically, one major reason is growing income inequality and declining employment opportunities. Building a life with someone else is hard when both of you are just barely getting by, it turns out. The truth is that marriage doesn’t improve your employment prospects, but as anyone who has ever dated ever can tell you, being gainfully employed definitely improves your ability to attract a mate, for both men and women. Feminism may play a small role in raising women’s expectations, particularly around being treated with respect, but what’s wrong with that?

So while it’s unfortunate that conservatives are trying to muddy the waters regarding the issue of poverty with all this marriage talk, the fact that the liberal arguments are simple is a point in our favor. When debating this topic, just remember: People are poor because they don’t have enough money, and straight women aren’t married because they haven’t met Mr. Right yet. Watching conservatives try to squirm around the obviousness of these facts should be entertaining, at least, but it should also help change some minds.

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