We Don’t Need a Piece of Paper from the City Hall (Or Do We?)


One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America

Melanie Heath

New York: New York University Press, 2012, 260 pp., $24.00, paperback


Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation after the Sexual Revolution

Elizabeth H. Pleck

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012, 290 pp.,  $27.50, paperback


Reviewed by Ruth Sidel


The United States is often criticized for its lack of a universal, comprehensive family policy.  While most other western industrialized democracies provide programs and services such as universal health care, paid parental leave, children’s allowances, and accessible day care, the US has thus far committed to none of these some-would-say basic human rights. Of course, we do have some elements of a family policy.  We have Medicare and Medicaid; we have unemployment insurance and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  We have limited and ever-shrinking day care for needy families as well as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) and Head Start.  But a comprehensive family policy that Americans can count on in good times and bad? 

Not yet—despite the fact that in 2010, according to the Census Bureau, 46.2 million people were living below the official poverty line, the highest percentage, 15.1, since 1993.  The highest rate, 27 percent, was experienced by blacks; the rate for Hispanics was close behind at 26 percent while 9.9 percent of whites lived in poverty.  Twenty-two percent of American children, more than one in five, were living in poverty in 2010. In November of that year, UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, published a report on “inequality in child wellbeing in the world’s rich countries.”  With respect to material wellbeing, the US ranked 23rd, between Hungary and Slovakia; with respect to educational wellbeing, the US ranked 19th, and with respect to health and wellbeing, the U.S. ranked 22nd.

Into this reality of poverty and a grossly inadequate support system a new element has been added: the promotion of marriage as a “cure” for poverty.  In One Marriage Under God, an illuminating ethnographic study of programs in Oklahoma to promote heterosexual marriage, Melanie Heath, assistant professor of Sociology at McMaster University, examines a variety of efforts aimed at encouraging couples to get and stay married. When Heath arrived in Oklahoma in 2004, the state’s marriage initiative had been operating for more than four years. The funding for it had been taken from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Federal Block Grant (TANF), established in 1996 when Congress passed so-called welfare reform. TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and constitutes the current welfare system. The goal of the marriage initiative is to reduce the high number of divorces in Oklahoma, to teach citizens about the many benefits of marriage, and to encourage cohabiting Oklahomans to marry.  To these ends, $10 million was taken out of the TANF reserve fund, and a public relations firm was hired to manage the program.  A substantial amount of money was thus taken from the poor in a state that, Heath points out, has one of the stingiest cash assistance programs in the country and is particularly punitive in its work requirements. The funds were used instead to promote the ideology of marriage among, as it turns out, largely middle-class Oklahomans.

Heath explains that the belief in the importance and value of marriage has roots in the ideologies of several groups prevalent in the US and particularly in Oklahoma: evangelical Protestants, political conservatives, and other groups who believe that marriage is central to American democracy and greatness.  Using the research technique of participant observation, Heath sat in on marriage workshops that were attended primarily by white, middle-class, heterosexual couples.  The focus was on teaching communication skills through a prepared curriculum that emphasized stereotypic notions of gender based on commonly assumed biological and cultural differences between men and women.  Or as Heath summarizes it, “Men play with their toys; women want flowers.” In the workshops, men are described as decision makers, women as emotional.  Men want sex; women want to provide just enough to keep them happy.  Heath observed classes that used two different curricula: one was secular, the other Christian, which included moral principles and Bible verses.

Heath vividly describes the content, the teaching techniques, and the reactions of the participants in the workshops.  The workshops in which the curriculum seemed to resonate the most were those in which middle-class, white couples were registered.  Occasionally a lesbian couple would turn up in a workshop, Heath writes, but they were viewed as outsiders in a setting where heterosexual marriage was clearly seen as the norm, and traditional male and female roles were seen as both natural and immutable.

Since the money funding the Oklahoma marriage promotion effort came from TANF funds, the effort included outreach to the TANF population.  Relationship classes were integrated into the orientation that clients were required to take in order to receive benefits.  Heath found that the TANF applicants were significantly more skeptical about the goals and methods of the workshops than the voluntary middle-class participants.  Some felt demeaned by the personal questions; others were frustrated “that they were being taught relationship skills when their focus was on getting more education and job-training skills to move forward in their lives,” writes Heath.

An issue of particular concern for some of the single-mother attendees was domestic violence.  Were the workshop leaders promoting marriage at all costs? they wanted to know. Some of them had left relationships because of violence or were currently experiencing abuse. While the marriage initiative initially attempted to address the issue of domestic violence through providing information and preventive measures, according to Heath violence often went unaddressed in the workshops. Some workshop leaders recognized that a curriculum developed for middle-class, heterosexual participants was not always appropriate for poor, single mothers or same-sex couples.

Is marriage really a cure for poverty?  There is no doubt that two paychecks are better than one, and that single mother-headed families are far more likely to be poor than two-parent families. But, are there enough “marriageable,” caring, giving, loving men with decent pay checks out there for all those impoverished women and children?  And what about gays and lesbians who would like a same-sex partner?  Is that path acceptable to the Oklahoma authorities? And why must couples marry?  Why not cohabit, which has become common and acceptable in recent decades?


In her thoughtful and often gripping book, Not Just Roommates, Elizabeth H. Pleck, professor emerita of History and Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, uses case studies to discuss the promotion of marriage and the often virulent discouragement of cohabitation in the US during the past half century.  From the persecution of an interracial couple living together in Miami Beach in the early 1960s, to the suspension of a Barnard student in the late 1960s for living off campus with her male friend, to state harassment of single welfare recipients, and state laws criminalizing cohabitation, Pleck vividly describes relentless discrimination against those who dare to live together without a license. The preamble to the Personal Responsibility and Welfare Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which established TANF, states that “marriage is the foundation of a successful society,” and of course, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Thus heterosexual marriage is privileged, and cohabiters judged immoral, particularly if they are poor, and even more so if they are poor women of color, who have been especially vulnerable to coercion and the withdrawal of necessary funds and services for themselves and their children. The policy of excluding poor women and children from welfare benefits if they were thought to be living with a man—either through marriage or cohabitation—was rampant under AFDC. The infamous “man in the house” rules were applied particularly to women of color in the South.  Even today, the rich and powerful live as they please—both Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, and Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, cohabit openly, with little if any public criticism—while poor people who receive government assistance must endure intrusions into their personal lives and, in some cases, punishment for their lifestyle decisions—even though these often make perfect sense in their circumstances.

The belief that marriage is the cure for poverty is flawed at its core.  How likely is it, particularly during this extended economic downturn, that an impoverished woman will find a man who has  steady employment and a decent paycheck?  Not only have well-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared, because of automation and outsourcing to other countries, but according to Peter Edelman, professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center and co-director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy, half of the jobs in the US currently pay less than $33,000 per year. One-quarter pay less than the poverty line of $22,000 for a family of four. According to CNNMoney (July 6, 2012), in June 2012, the overall employment rate was 8.2 percent, while it was 14.4 percent among African American men and 11 percent among Hispanic men. Ironically, given these statistics, David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, two of the foremost proponents of marriage rather than cohabitation as the optimum life strategy, state in their monograph, “Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage,” “Male economic status remains an important determinant as to whether or not a man feels ready to marry, and a woman wants to marry him.” But didn’t we learn from Eliot Liebow, in his beautifully written, still-relevant ethnography Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (1967), that the bonds between unemployed and underemployed men and their families become more and more tenuous as their economic situations worsen?  Rather than feel like failures each time they go home, because they cannot meet their economic obligations, they stop going home. 

Moreover, the current US system of mass incarceration, in which more than 2 million people, most of them members of racial and ethnic minorities, are incarcerated—more than any other developed country in the world—is a major impediment to lower-income women marrying their way out of poverty.  According to Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), if and when prisoners are released, they are often denied the right to vote and

relegated to a racially segregated and subordinated existence...confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy….They are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits—much as African Americans were once forced into segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era.

In Washington, DC, it is estimated that three out of four black men will spend some time in prison. Are these the men who will provide the escape from poverty?

These two volumes analyze the American propensity to blame individual behavior rather than the structure of society for severe and fundamental problems.  Rather than recognize that the minimum wage is a poverty wage that is truly unlivable and locks workers into the lower class; that the erosion of jobs, particularly manufacturing jobs, has led to widespread, persistent unemployment; that growing inequality over the past forty years has led to the development of two societies with very different life experiences and opportunities, we blame single mothers, cohabiters, and others who do not adhere to traditional middle and upper-middle class values, particularly when they are poor and powerless.  We even take money from grossly inadequate programs for the poor to engineer behavioral changes—attempts that are at best unrealistic and at worst demonize those whose reality does not fit in with the current ideology.  Ultimately both of these books describe a decades-long attempt to “blame the victim” and modify the victim’s behavior rather than to find workable solutions to our severe and often crippling social and economic problems.  



Ruth Sidel is a professor of Sociology at Hunter College (CUNY). She has written widely about women and poverty and is the author most recently of Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream (2006).

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