Sooner Haven in Oklahoma City.*
Kim Henderson and Corean Brothers are good friends who live in Sooner Haven, housing projects plopped into northeast Oklahoma City. They are — for lack of a better adjective — amazing. Kim Henderson was the rare young woman in her world who made it to her twenties with no children. Corean Brothers was a divorcee in her 40’s who managed to be a doting, attentive mother to her five young children, who all miraculously turned out alright considering their considerable disadvantages.
Anyway. The Bush administration allocated federal money to go to programs that were intended to boost marriage rates among the poor, after policy thinkers from all over the political spectrum decided that marriage had a stabilizing effect on neighborhoods. And, as it turned out, both Kim and Corean were looking for husbands. So they began attending marriage seminars paid for with the new federal money at a nearby church. The seminars were fun and harrowing; the quotidian realities and indignities of life for these two unflappable women and the other women in their group — there are, tellingly, no men in attendance at these sessions — made the idea of marriage simultaneously an encumbrance to be viewed suspiciously and a longed-for pipe dream.
Their stories were spotlighted in Katherine Boo‘s 2003 New Yorker piece called “The Marriage Cure,” which won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004 and is probably the best long-form magazine writing I’ve ever read. I’m importuning you to read it.
Many Oklahoma City maps end where the Sooner Haven neighborhood begins. Pizza places won’t deliver here, and local strip malls have been abandoned, their display windows given over to leaflets of undercapitalized entrepreneurs (“Nile Princess Home Braidz 4 Less”). The neighborhood feels connected to the world around it mainly on Sunday mornings, when residents who have moved up and out return to its churches to pray. Nonetheless, the community is an apt setting for a test of whether the government can persuade low-income citizens to marry.
Using federal money to raise the marriage rate among the poor — the House recently approved a three-hundred-million-dollar White House plan to help states experiment towards this goal — is an effort to complete what the Administration considers the unfinished business of the 1996 federal welfare-reform law. And Oklahoma turns out to be a quintessential post-welfare state. In the past eight years, its public-assistance rolls dropped ninety-one percent — among the country’s most substantial declines — but widespread work hasn’t brought widespread economic security. Median household income remains among the lowest in the country, and out-of-wedlock childbearing rates are among the country’s highest. While a considerable amount of social-science data suggest that two-parent families are good for children, marriage promoters also see matrimony as a means of decreasing crime and welfare dependence in neighborhoods like Sooner Haven. In a recent homage to Oklahoma’s marriage-promotion pioneers, Wade Horn, the Bush Administration’s marriage-promotion guru, wrote, “If marriage is good for communities, why should government be shy about promoting and strengthening it?”
The 2000 census recorded a decline in marriage rates across all demographic groups, but the least likely to marry are African-Americans, who are also increasingly over represented on national welfare rolls. As Orlando Patterson, of Harvard, a scholar of black marriage patterns, recently observed, African-Americans remain “among the most un-partnered and estranged individuals in the world.”…
“But in real life I’m still back at the beginning,” Kim said after the exercise. “I mean, how do you get to the point of even having a bad marriage, when every time you start to say the word ‘love’ he starts talking about basketball?”
“My thing is: how do you get a man to talk about marriage when you’re pretty sure he’s still sleeping with his baby’s mother?” a nurse’s aide asked, expressing a problem so familiar at Sooner Haven that it is known by the term “baby-mama drama.” “And then how do you tell if he wants to marry you for the right reasons?” the nurse’s aide went on. “When I wear my white uniform, guys around here know I’m working and chase me down the street to get their hands on my paycheck.”
“You have to ask to be treated as you deserve,” Pastor Young said. “If you don’t demand respect from the males, you won’t get it.”
“Here’s what troubles me,” Corean said, as another transparency lit up the wall. “Look at all those couples who say they’re stable but not happy. I am enjoying these exercises, and I agree our society has too much divorce, but it doesn’t seem right to me that a woman should stick with a man when she’s miserable, or settle for one who doesn’t make her happy. Why isn’t it better to be alone?”
“Two parents means two paychecks,” Kim said, frowning. On a ledger, as a pooling of resources, marriage made sense. But Kim’s experience with males, like that of the other women in the class, pointed toward a more complicated calculation. None of the women were on welfare, and all were determined not to be. And while they wanted men for companionship, sex, and the sort of honest, intimate conversation they were enjoying in marriage class, they weren’t entirely sure men were useful to their efforts at self-improvement. All but one of the women in the room had grown up without a father in the home. At least two had been sexually abused in the first ten years of their lives. Those who had children had been left by the children’s fathers. Three had been beaten by men they had loved, and two had been involved with violent criminals. In short, it required an imaginative leap to believe that a committed relationship with a man would rescue a woman from poverty. At Sooner Haven, relationships with men were often what stopped an ambitious woman from escaping.
Is marriage a balm for poverty? If poor people marry at lower rates than people who aren’t underprivileged, it’s more possible that marriage is an indicator of a certain lifestyle than a cause of it. In other words, it’s not because people get married that they become middle class; it’s that middle class people live the kind of lives that lend themselves to marriage in the first place.
Again, I beseech you: please read Boo’s piece. It’s really, really good.
* That picture is from the Oklahoma City Housing Authority. I’ve been awash in reading that deals with public housing lately, and a couple of themes keep popping up over and over. City housing agencies are often mind-bogglingly inept and deeply corrupt; they also serve populations that are no one’s real constituency, and so there’s no incentive to do much about those issues. They uniformly project themselves to the public as doing good work (OCHA’s slogan: “It’s all about people”), but they’re run by bureaucracies that often treat concerns that have debilitating effects on the very, very poor (like say, no heat in the winter) with outright contempt. This picture is clearly not a recent one, and I can’t find another one anywhere — two facts that speak volumes.