Study: Even educated poor people hate marriage

I spend a lot of time thinking about the way I learned what relationships were meant to be and look like as a teenager. That’s the kind of craziness that unravels when you’re working on a book about single people.

What I always come back to is that I was raised in a universe that valued partnership as a survival mechanism and not this nice, fluffy thing that gets packaged in our culture as the myth of the best relationship in the universe when people get married. Ideally, in the best case scenario, two people who love themselves and are at least striving to be as healthy as they can be emotionally and probably physically, find in each other a partner with which to journey through life.

But if you are one of those “socially disadvantaged” types — my least favorite euphemism growing up as a poor person — then the presumption reinforced by studies, reports and media is that you are fundamentally incapable of reaching this goal. There is a health/emotional wellness factor that is missing from poor people, I guess, that means that you cannot even learn it, even when you take out thousands of dollars in student loans trying to get an education to become less socially disadvantaged. This is from a story out of Cornell University :

For those with few social advantages, college is a prime pathway to financial stability, but it also unexpectedly lowers their odds of ever marrying, according to an analysis by Cornell sociologist Kelly Musick in the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family (74:1).
The findings suggest that social and cultural factors, not just income, are central to marriage decisions. Men and women from the least advantaged backgrounds who attend college appear to be caught between social worlds — reluctant to “marry down” to partners with less education and unable to “marry up” to those from more privileged upbringings. Lower marriage chances appear to stem from men’s and women’s mismatched social origins and educational attainment — a phenomenon Musick and co-authors refer to as “marriage market mismatch.”
“College students are becoming more diverse in their social backgrounds, but they nonetheless remain a socio-economically select group — particularly at elite universities like Cornell,” said Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology. “It may be difficult for students from less privileged backgrounds to navigate social relationships on campus, and these difficulties may affect what students ultimately gain from the college experience.”

I don’t know what to make of studies like this. On one hand, they offend me, because I presume that they are written by people who have never really known poverty or experienced it. The clinically distant purview from which sociologists and researchers regard people who are making monumentally difficult decisions about the structures of their families irks me — but it’s still important that the research is being done.

On the ground level, though, I can say that I never learned how to date in the ‘hood. Dating = going steady. Going steady meant being possessed by one guy until he tired of me, or I tired of him, the end. Poverty gives humans short attention spans. If there’s no food in the fridge and you’re not sure when or if money’s coming in for bills or whether the front door will open when you try to turn the lock, the very last thing on your mind is how to maintain a relationship with someone who might be in the very same predicament that you’re in. And I wouldn’t have even known the first thing to say to a man who presented himself as middle class.

Beyond that, navigating the college experience as a single woman from a poor neighborhood was a complete head trip. Actually, aside from a horrid Introduction to Psychology class, my biggest challenge as an undergraduate was navigating romantic relationships. The male to female ratio then was 60/40, women to men. The bulk of the men on campus wanted to date women who were not black, and usually, they preferred women from other races who were willing to be their sponsors. The marriage market was in favor of a small group of men of color and the majority of my wealthy white classmates. I say all that to underscore how depressing reading statistical evidence for that conundrum is:

For the study, Musick and sociologists at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) estimated the propensity of men’s and women’s college attendance based on family income, parental education and other indicators of social background and early academic achievement. They then grouped their subjects into social strata based on these propensity scores and compared marriage chances of college- and non-college-goers within each stratum. Estimates were based on a sample of about 3,200 Americans from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, followed from adolescence into adulthood.

They found that college attendance negatively affected marriage chances for the least advantaged individuals — lessening men’s and women’s odds by 38 percent and 22 percent, respectively. By comparison, among those in the highest social stratum, men who attend college increase their marrying chances by 31 percent and women by 8 percent.

So, in other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In life and in love. Sometimes, I wish statistics were a little less damning.

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