Kathryn Edin's and Maria Kefalas' new book, "Promises I Can Keep," explains — in their subjects' own words — why so many poor...

Share story

WASHINGTON — Kathryn Edin’s and Maria Kefalas’ new book, “Promises I Can Keep,” explains — in their subjects’ own words — why so many poor women opt for single motherhood.

It’s not that they don’t believe in marriage, or don’t want it for themselves. They “delay” marriage until they think they have a reasonable shot at making it work. What Edin and Kefalas, both Philadelphia sociologists, found in their five-year study of 162 poor black, white and Puerto Rican single mothers is a near-total disconnect between marriage and motherhood.

Unlike earlier generations, they don’t look to marriage to give their children “a name” or for economic stability; they see it as a crowning achievement — something to look forward to after they have their children, decent jobs and a house of their own. To marry earlier, they insist, is to leave themselves prey to the controlling and abusive men that are available to them in their inner-city neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Maggie Gallagher has produced an analysis of recent research on family structure and delinquency, which concludes that — after controlling for race, income and education — boys who grow up without fathers are several times more likely to end up in jail. Earlier studies, says Gallagher, who is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, show that children raised outside marriage are more prone to poverty, substance abuse, school failure, delinquency and adult crime.

Can the young women of “Promises” be serious about placing marriage in such high esteem that they forgo it? Don’t they understand that the script they’ve written for themselves may not play out so well for their children?

I recalled what William Galston, a University of Maryland professor of public policy, once called his “favorite statistic” — that finishing high school, reaching age 21 and getting married before having the first child dramatically reduces the odds that the child will experience poverty.

So, I wondered, what does he make of the “Promises” findings?

“If I were a woman in a community like the one they describe, and the pool of men I was looking at involved dropouts with criminal records and abusive patterns, I wouldn’t marry either. But that omits the prior question: Why would I allow such a man to impregnate me?”

In short, it isn’t simply the decoupling of marriage from children, but the decoupling of the decision to have a child from the rest of your life.

“I’m not surprised by the finding that these young women place a high value on marriage,” Galston told me. “The poor do not differ from the rest of America in their aspirations. They want college, a profession, marriage, a house with a picket fence. What distinguishes them is some combination of opportunity and concrete steps from their current reality to their future dream. Basically, what these women have is a magical outlook on life.”

Galston’s “magical outlook” aptly describes a phenomenon I’ve long observed, but never named. I’ve asked young men where they expect to be 10 years hence, and their earnest expectations include “nice job, nice wife, nice car, nice crib” — though nothing they are doing or currently planning puts them on track to achieve those goals. They are less aspirations than hope. Or magic.

“The poor don’t need their consciousness raised as to what a good life looks like,” Galston says. “They may have a pretty good idea of what they want ‘way down the road,’ but they don’t know what to do next.

“There are things you don’t learn in a classroom, and if your circumstances aren’t rich in the sort of input you need, you may not learn them at all. Unless you have a home where these things are specifically talked about and reinforced, or a mentor or guide of some sort, you may not be able to figure out where the road is, let alone how to take it, or what direction.”

We’re a long way from marriage — but maybe not so far after all. Hear Galston again:

“If I could raise a magic wand, by eighth grade, every rising ninth-grader would be attached to an adult who understands that young person and the life forces that might propel that young person forward. I’m not talking about some warm-fuzzy bond, I mean someone to help the young person answer that question that the middle class have largely figured out: What do I do next?”

Are the schools the best place to make these attachments?

Galston answers with a question: “Who else can?”

William Raspberry’s column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com