Learning and Legislating to Love: Marriage Promotion Policy and Family Inequality in America
In 1996, Congress overhauled welfare policy to encourage work and marriage as routes to economic self-sufficiency for poor American families. This led to the subsequent creation of the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) in 2002. The HMI has funded hundreds of relationship skills and marriage education programs across the country, many targeting poor and low-income unmarried couples with children. To date, very little of the social scientific and policy debate over the value of such programs has focused on what relationship skills-based government-sponsored marriage promotion actually involves in practice. To address this gap, this dissertation draws on data collected data during an 18-month participant observation study of one federally-funded relationship skills program for low-income, unmarried parents called Thriving Families, including in-depth interviews with 60 program staff, instructors, and participants.
I find that Thriving Families couples delayed marriage because of a phenomenon I call curtailed commitment, the belief that if they cannot live up to middle-class ideas of family life, including meeting a specific economic threshold, couples are not equipped for marriage. Staff and instructors employed three primary strategies to encourage couples to overcome this reluctance: 1) rather than promoting marriage directly, they promoted a healthy co-parenting relationship, preferably within the context of marriage, as the best resource poor parents have to bolster their children's life chances; 2) they reframed what I call marital masculinity by suggesting that marriageable men are those who have the capacity to be caring co-parents and good communicators, qualities that do not depend on their ability to live up to middle-class norms of male breadwinning; and 3) they tried to teach parents financial management skills that would presumably enable them to have more money and communication skills to help them talk through relationship problems. Though economic constraints challenged their abilities to use the skills promoted by the program, parents viewed the classes as a rare opportunity to communicate free of the material constraints that overwhelmingly characterized their daily lives and their intimate relationships. This suggests that rather than promoting an instrumental view of marriage--that marriage prevents poverty--healthy marriage policy could likely better serve disadvantaged families by acknowledging and addressing the socioeconomic roots of curtailed commitment as part of public efforts to strengthen family relationships.