One of the first rules of academic research is: don’t confuse correlation with causation. In other words, just because two things are related doesn’t mean that one of them caused the other.
Of course, sometimes there is correlation and causation; one thing did cause the other. In those cases, the trick is figuring out which is cause and which is effect.
In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, economics reporter Annie Lowery took a closer look at the conventional wisdom that marriage “lifts children and families out of poverty.” As she notes, no one disputes the fact that “where marriage is, poverty tends not to be.” There is a definite correlation between marriage and a whole host of positive outcomes for children and families.
That, however, doesn’t tell us that marriage cures poverty. Indeed, recent research suggests we’ve gotten the equation backwards. Living in poverty is a barrier to getting and staying married. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, puts the issue rather starkly: “Unless we improve the fortunes of poor working people, particularly poor working men, we aren’t going to see marriage coming back.”
The research strongly suggests that the biggest problem facing impoverished people isn’t the fact that they’re single. It’s–wait for it–not enough money. And until that problem is addressed, all the millions of dollars spent on programs offering “relationship counseling” and marriage promotion might just as well be flushed down the commode.
Maybe the millions of dollars going to the various providers of “faith-based” marital advice and middle-class “values” counseling might better be spent on ameliorating poverty. Love is grand, but food comes first.