at the Huffington Post:

Stephanie slips the brown paper sleeve off a Starbucks drink and starts tearing it artfully. A small hut emerges. “My vacation home,” she says wistfully. Stephanie could use a vacation. Her last one was a weekend trip with her ex-boyfriend to the caves in Ohio’s Hocking Hills — which consisted of fighting in a tiny cabin and ended in their break-up. At age nineteen, Stephanie gave birth to her son and for years raised him alone. When he was four, she met and got pregnant with her current boyfriend, with whom she has a toddler. She and her boyfriend live together in a public housing duplex in small town, southwestern Ohio. Between the two of them, they have worked in just about every restaurant in town.

When asked what she thinks about marriage, Stephanie, whose own parents divorced several times, has a lot to say: “I believe you only get married once. So if I get married, I don’t want to be divorced.” Now that she and her boyfriend feel like family, she thinks it would be good to get married.

She says that marriage is more “binding” and “final,” and better for children. But for Stephanie, marriage poses a terrible choice: “If we got married,” she frowns, “what’s going to happen with my food stamps? How am I going to take care of my kids if those get taken from me?”

Stephanie is right to be worried. Experts estimate that, for most couples receiving public assistance, getting married will reduce their benefits by 10 percent to 20 percent of their total income. For people already living at the margins and often mired in debt (Stephanie herself has no college degree, but does owe $10,000 in school loans), that possibility is enough to make them think twice about marriage. And yet, Stephanie is also right that marriage on average is far more stable for children than just living together. By age 12, children born to cohabiting couples are 170 percent more likely to see their parents split up, compared to children born to married couples.

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Articles by Eve Tushnet

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