Is Marriage a Panacea? Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Unwed Mothers

Daniel T. Lichter, Deborah Roempke Graefe and J. Brian Brown
Social Problems
Vol. 50, No. 1 (February 2003), pp. 60-86
DOI: 10.1525/sp.2003.50.1.60
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Page Count: 27
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Is Marriage a Panacea? Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Unwed Mothers on JSTOR
Research Article
(HN) Social History


Current U.S. government policy views marriage as an economic panacea for disadvantaged unwed mothers. In this article, we use retrospective family life history data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth to examine marital histories of at-risk women. First, we examine current marital behavior and poverty of women from disadvantaged family backgrounds. Second, we evaluate the role of unwed childbearing in linking poverty and welfare dependence between childhood and adulthood. Third, we document the extent to which marriage is associated with economic well-being among socially and economically disadvantaged women, and the extent to which unwed mothers ultimately benefit from marriage. Our results indicate that disadvantaged women who have had children out of wedlock have substantially lower rates of subsequent marriage than other women. Poverty and welfare receipt are substantially lower for those who married and stayed married than for those who never-married or were divorced. The economic benefits of marriage are especially strong among women from disadvantaged families. However, for women who marry, but later divorce, poverty rates exceed those of never-married women. Marriage alone will not offset the long-term deleterious effects associated with unwed childbearing, nor will it eliminate the existing disparity in poverty and welfare receipt among various racial and ethnic groups.