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April 13, 2014 / brockportsociology

Promoting Marriage May Perpetuate Inequality

Pro-marriage initiatives may well perpetuate the cycle of poverty, rather than arresting it.

attachmentBy: Haley A. Markham*

home_coverIn 2010, authors Wagmiller, Gershoff, Veliz, and Clements, reported their findings to the query: “Do Children’s Academic Achievement Improve When Single Mothers Marry?” in Sociology of Education. Since maternal marriage is often touted as a panacea for challenges endured by children in single parent homes, the researchers attempted to discern when and if this is so, and to what degree maternal marriage specifically impacts academic achievement, if at all. Their sample included 21,260 children enrolled in 944 kindergartners during the 1998-1999 school year. Data were collected by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). An average of 23 kindergarteners were selected from each of the sampled schools; their academic achievement was assessed annually using math and reading scores collected through fifth grade. They accounted for variables such as: parental education, financial status, and learning support/enrichment activities provided to the children. Wagmiller, Gershoff, Veliz, and Clements concluded that the benefits of maternal marriage to their children is so limited and circumscribed that federal and state marriage initiatives should be reevaluated for relevancy and appropriateness in the context of social policy.

Beyond the scope of governmental initiatives, this study provides new knowledge about the cycle of poverty. The study itself is hampered, in that there are far too many critical variables not identified or addressed in the data they rely on for their research, such as: siblings and step-siblings and their numbers/ages/genders/birth order/behavioral impact upon the family; extended family and their involvement with the child, including the biological father (if not the man who mother married, if indeed the mother married a man at all!); the neighborhood/school/external support system available to the child; the tangible goods and foodstuffs available to the child, his/her health and access to appropriate care; history of trauma, disability, developmental delays and temperamental variances, the ages of the parents, and their own histories, etc. Given the magnitude and number of such key factors not mentioned in the study, it seems doubtful that a strong correlation could be made between maternal marriage and academic achievement. The study does, however, afford the researchers the opportunity to discern a notable disparity within their sample: while maternal marriage amongst lower income and less educated people seemed associated with lower levels of academic achievement for the reporting child, maternal marriage among higher income and higher educated people seemed to produce a benefit, at least within the limited age range of the sample.

This may suggest that the marriage of two disadvantaged people has the potential to compound problems faced by their children (instead of lessening them, as the social strategists would suggest) whereas the marriage of two advantaged people might enhance their children’s achievements. It is a simplistic hypothesis, but provocative. If this is true—and further research will have to address this—the very governmental initiatives that purport to benefit the poor may in fact ensure that the well-to-do are buffered and the poor remain mired within the confines of the cycle of poverty with the challenges of one generation influencing and compounding the next.

Reference:

Clements, M., Gershoff, E., Veliz, P., & Wagmiller Jr., R.L. (2010). Does Children’s Academic Achievement Improve When Single Mothers Marry? Sociology of Education. 83(3), 201-226.

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*Haley Markam is a sophomore recently accepted into the Nursing Class of 2016 at The College at Brockport. This post was originally submitted in Dr. Eric Kaldor’s Introduction to Sociology course (SOC100) in the spring 2014 semester as a project helping students learn more about the process of searching for and evaluating social scientific research.

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