When Penn sociologist Kathryn Edin wanted to find out why so many poor young women in America have children out of wedlock, she went straight to the source. With her husband and two small children, she moved to Camden, where she lived for two and a half years, immersing herself in the local life and getting to know her neighbors.
The results of her on-the-ground research (and that of colleague Marie Kefalas from St. Josephs University) have recently been published as “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage,” a book that puts the lie to several myths about motherhood and marriage in poor neighborhoods.
To find single mothers to interview, Edin accompanied nurses as they visited new mothers and interviewed pastors, corner store owners and other “local gatekeepers.” “We wanted to piggyback on trusted individuals,” says Edin. “We were asking them intimate details about their lives so we had to develop trust.”
The experience of living in a poor neighborhood, says Edin, was eye opening. So blighted were her surroundings, she says, “We couldn’t get pizza delivered and the Maytag repair man wouldn’t come to fix our washer. Edin took it in stride, navigating her children around hypodermic needles and condoms on the sidewalk and doing her laundry at the local laundromat. Edin doesn’t regret her decision. If we hadn’t lived there I don’t know if I would have known what questions to ask, she says. Once Kefalas joined the project, they expanded the study to include three neighborhoods in Camden and five in Philadelphia (North Central Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion, Pennsport, North Kensington and Kensington).
Edin says that what she heard from the single mothers surprised her. Marriage, it seems, is revered as much, if not more, in poor communities as middle class ones. But while it is seen as a way to gain respectability, a divorce is the ultimate loss of face.
In their book, Edin and Kefalas write that marriage is an elusive, shimmering goal, one that ought to be reserved for those who can support a ‘white picket fence’ lifestyle; a mortgage on a modest row-home ... some savings in the bank and enough money left over to pay for a ‘decent’ wedding. Until they possess these resources, these women believe, marriage should stay on the back burner.
Having children, on the other hand, can bring meaning, structure and love to their lives. “Imagine yourself as a young girl growing up in a poor neighborhood, says Edin. “You’re living in a chaotic neighborhood. You’re experimenting with drugs. You’re engaging in risky sexual behavior. You don’t see a future and life is spinning out of control. Into this void comes a baby ... [which] provides structure.
On some level, she says, the women want these babies. “This is not about lack of knowledge or access to birth control.”
“Bush wants to put money into relationship skills training,” she says, “and that’s a good thing, but a poor but happy marriage has almost no chance of survival.”
And since children are a chief source of identity for poor women, programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancy need to provide a meaningful alternative. It’s vital that these programs succeed, says Edin, because although there’s evidence that women who have children young don’t suffer—after all, they have nothing to lose—we do know, she says, kids born to younger moms and without a dad are at a disadvantage.
Originally published on April 14, 2005