An Indiana state representative is pitching a taxpayer-funded office to promote marriage. Just in time for Valentine’s Day.
This is not a new idea.
Rep. Jeff Thompson, a Republican of Lizton, envisions an Office of Marriage Promotion as a way to stabilize poor communities. He sees gun violence and gang affiliations among urban youth and notes the lack of fathers as role models. He sees mothers struggling to work and pay bills on one sparse income. So his answer is to enlighten these people to the benefits of marriage and the rewards of a stable, two-parent home.
If only it were that easy. If only the poor didn’t know far more about their daily struggles than those who seek to lift them up.
Children do benefit from being surrounded by educated adults who can provide for them financially and emotionally without struggling and scraping to get by paycheck to paycheck. Two parents working together to raise their children is a good foundation. We all should wish this for every family.
The problem is that preaching about marriage won’t accomplish it.
Those who press these ideas tend to know very little about what it means to be poor. They talk about poor people’s bad choices or deficient work ethic, but they don’t acknowledge the way poverty grinds people, the way it forecloses the options that families with stable jobs enjoy, the way it extracts great costs and exertions to get every little thing.
Being poor is about shame, humiliation, uncertainty, stress, envy, anger, depression, boredom, hopelessness and the awful feeling that no matter how hard you try, you will be judged and found wanting.
Poverty is not going to be solved by a marriage license. And the lack of one is not what causes poverty. Poverty is caused by lack of money to meet basic needs. Improving people’s economic status increases the likelihood they will marry and have fewer children, but the reverse is not necessarily true.
Conservatives fail to get this. To be fair, so do a lot of other people. This is where Rep. Thompson and others who routinely press such ideas could learn a thing or two from the very people they are scolding.
In 2005, the novelist John Scalzi put together a poignant post on his website titled very simply “Being poor.” It is a list of experiences known all too well to those with the misfortune of being down and out in the United States, and likely unknown to the more fortunate.
I urge anybody and everybody who feels moved to discourse on the poor to read it before opening their traps. It won’t tell you why people are poor or how we can help them not be poor anymore. It will, however, make clear that it’s not a picnic and it’s not a choice. And if you haven’t been there, you almost certainly don’t know whereof you speak.
Here’s a sampling:
“Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs. …
“Being poor is Goodwill underwear. …
“Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal. …
“Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you. …
“Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.”
Don’t miss the readers’ comments to Scalzi’s piece; they’re heart rending.
Meanwhile, here’s our Indiana legislator. “Look at the example of what’s happening in this city and the number of shootings,” he said, referring to Indianapolis. “It doesn’t occur in my community. I don’t like what’s happening. But there are regions and pockets where marriage is not the norm where children are born to.”
He’s talking about black people. Coded language is common when marriage is professed as an answer to poverty.
Yes, African-Americans have higher rates of children born out of wedlock. But again, matrimony as a solution doesn’t grasp the reality of many low-income women’s lives.
Poor, less-educated women do not have a plethora of highly educated, upper-middle-class men vying for their attention. Their love interests are more likely to be underemployed men with low skill levels and possibly a criminal record. Telling these women to just pick one and marry him is hardly a good choice.
There are myriad reasons a person can end up in poverty. (Here’s a common one: You were born into it.) There are many ways we can help people escape it, including government policies that promote stable, sustainable employment.
But here’s a tip to politicians who pontificate about the poor: Approach their condition with empathy and humility, and you might just figure out ways to actually be helpful.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108-1413, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: gcardinal via Wikimedia Commons