Their Babies Are Everything

Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas (University of California Press, 312 pages, $24.95)

In the American pantheon of evildoers, “welfare moms” easily outrank rotten CEOs, corrupt defense contractors, and media moguls who sell sex and sensation. No group has been as demonized, denigrated, or denounced as the poor girls who have children before they are married or financially prepared. But why try to get to the bottom of complex cultural problems when kicking the underdogs and blaming them for what's wrong in America is such satisfying sport? Goaded by popular opinion, the massive federal government resembles an angry paterfamilias trying to crack down on rebellious teenage daughters without understanding what's behind their often feckless behavior.

Thankfully, someone has now taken the trouble to ask poor mothers themselves what's going on. Kathryn Edin, a sociologist, and Maria Kefalas, an ethnographer, spent years interviewing 162 white, black, and Hispanic women from Philadelphia's inner city, and their new book, Promises I Can Keep, attempts to answer two questions: Why do these women so seldom marry; and why, at young ages, do they go ahead and have children they can barely afford? The experts have their theories, but the only real experts are the mothers themselves, and it's refreshing to hear from them for a change.

The authors went to extraordinary lengths. Like a good investigative reporter, Edin even moved her family, including young children, into one of the poorest communities in the Philadelphia area for two and half years, trying to understand the lives of her subjects. Her findings debunk many of the urban myths about welfare mothers that have produced so much high blood pressure and bad social policy.

For starters, there appears to be little difference in worldviews or behavior among the poor, whatever their ethnicity. Class, not race, seems to be the key determinant. Second, these young women have just as much respect for marriage as anyone else. Their hopes and dreams of wedded bliss rival anything Jane Austen or the screenwriters of Pretty Woman could have ever dreamed up. The problem is that they just want what we would all agree is reasonable: husbands who don't fool around, who can earn a decent living, who don't beat them or do drugs or end up in prison.

Women today -- whatever their class -- don't want to settle for what passed as an acceptable marriage in the 1950s. But this turns out to be a tall order for an uneducated girl living in a bad neighborhood who was never very interested in school. Forget A-list guys -- these girls will be lucky to find anyone who could make the C list on a slow weeknight in August.

In the meantime, while they are waiting for someone who is marriage material, poor girls tend to fool around with guys who are clearly not, and that leads -- surprise, surprise -- to pregnancy. And in a departure from their middle-class sisters, disadvantaged girls tend to have their unplanned but not quite accidental babies. For them, as the authors put it, “marriage is a longed-for luxury [but] children are a necessity.”

Edin and Kefalas believe that the poor value babies more than middle-class Americans. The women they met could not imagine a life without children; for them, childlessness would be a tragedy. When Kefalas became pregnant at age 30 with her first child, the teen mothers she was working with assumed, as one put it, that it was a miracle. They couldn't imagine that anyone could have chosen to put off childbearing that long. Many poor young girls have their family early “to get it out of the way.” Waiting for Mr. Right, who might not show up before they qualify for Social Security, makes no sense. And marrying Mr. Wrong, only to end up divorced, makes no sense either. Interestingly, for these women, divorce is more shameful than a baby born out of wedlock. As one unwed mother of two put it, “I'm not going to do nothing, like make any promises that I'm not gonna be able to keep.”

Edin and Kefalas may have stumbled on an explanation for the recent stability in divorce rates: Fewer young people in unsatisfying or doubtful relationships are getting married. These young mothers realize that they will sacrifice very little in future opportunities by having their children early. Disadvantaged teen mothers have about the same long-term earnings as similarly disadvantaged youth who wait until their mid- or late 20s to have a child. Put another way, poorly educated young women, unlike middle-class girls, have very low “opportunity costs” when they become mothers.

On the contrary, for a young woman with few attractive options, a baby becomes a powerful source of identity and purpose in life. The authors were struck by how many women saw their children as an unmitigated blessing, even as their salvation. Asked to imagine life without children, typical comments were, “I'd be messed up on drugs,” and, “I'd be nowhere at all.” Raising a child conscientiously was life's heroic challenge and deepest source of satisfaction. The difficulties were the test of one's mettle.

Disadvantaged women, in short, become the mothers that the right wing dreams of: mothers who have their babies early, and whose highest aspirations in life are to nurture and be fulfilled by their offspring.

Nor do these women lack a work ethic. Edin and Kefalas found no sign of any desire to “live off welfare” or “milk the system,” as so many right-thinking, tax-paying citizens fear. The authors note, “Unlike women of earlier generations, these women today almost universally reject the idea that marriage means financial reliance on a male breadwinner.” They expect to earn their own way. A woman's own earnings and assets can buy her greater equality in a relationship and a form of insurance against abuse -- not to mention food and Pampers for the baby.

The deviant subculture that jumps out of this account is not so much female as male, although the authors unfortunately did not ask men for their side of the story. As the women tell it, troublemaking men are a constant in their lives. Poor white and Hispanic men often drink too much and beat their wives; poor black men are more likely to do drugs and get in trouble with the law. (The black women, interestingly, were less likely to tolerate domestic violence.) Men of whatever race were likely to fool around, to spend money on themselves rather than the family, and to demand subservience at home. All had problems with stable employment, which was undoubtedly an important root cause of much of their destructive behavior.

In light of all this, the most effective marriage-promotion measures would clearly include a full employment policy and an end to draconian prison terms for nonviolent crimes. Who is a poor girl supposed to marry when 2 million men are behind bars, many of them sentenced to 10 years or more for trying to make a buck selling dope?

Still, according to Edin and Kefalas, the sociologist William Julius Wilson's “marriageable pool” hypothesis -- the notion that marriage among the poor has declined because of a lack of marriageable men -- can explain only a fraction of the current disconnect between marriage and childbearing. More important, they conclude, is what the historian Stephanie Coontz has called the “love revolution”: the redefinition of marriage as a relationship that has to be personally fulfilling.

This is progress. It testifies to the triumph of hope over resignation. It represents a revolution of rising expectations among the disadvantaged as well as those better off. It suggests that we don't need policies that promote just “any old marriage” but policies that can foster more emotionally satisfying, egalitarian marriages.

Marriage promotion is a good idea in the United States, where there is more family disruption than anywhere else in the industrialized world. By age 15, only half of American children live with both biological parents, compared with roughly two-thirds of Swedish, German, and French children, and 90 percent of children in Spain and Italy. But we need to be sure we are promoting marriages that are good for everyone in a family, including mothers.

How can we do that? For starters, decades of research show that when young women have greater opportunities in life, they readily postpone having children. Second, nothing encourages marriage like stable earnings, yet wages for the average worker are falling in real terms despite rising corporate profits. At the very least, an increase in the minimum wage and laws making unionization easier would help, yet the same conservative Republicans who want to promote marriage among the poor oppose efforts by workers to improve their lot -- suggesting that taking care of corporate donors takes precedence over moral outrage over fatherless families.

It's also time to see poor mothers' devotion to children as a cultural asset. Instead of attacking people for wanting kids, we need policies that help these mothers do a better job, both for their sakes and for ours.

One of the things missing in Promises I Can Keep is any detail on the child-rearing practices of poor, disadvantaged mothers. We are told that they have not adopted middle-class child-rearing norms and that they believe that they are good, competent parents. They may be doing their best, but given their lack of resources, it can't be enough. What about fully funded child care, and preschool beginning at age 3, a proven way of improving outcomes for poor kids? What about parent education, for both mothers and fathers, to discourage punitive practices, and a better understanding of what young children are capable of learning?

In sum, why aren't we building on people's love of children instead of calling that strength a weakness?

Ann Crittenden is the author of The Price of Motherhood and If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything.

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