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High Hopes but Even Higher Expectations: The Retreat From Marriage Among Low-Income Couples


Department of Public Policy, Duke University, P.O. Box 90245, Durham, NC 27708 (


This study examines why low-income, unmarried parents who say that they plan to marry at the time their child is born do not follow through on their plans. We use data from a nationally representative birth cohort survey—the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N =3,710)—combined with data from an embedded qualitative study—Time, Love, Cash, Caring, and Children (n =47)—to explore the reasons behind this apparent discrepancy. We find that some of the difference between parents’ expectations and behavior may be because of the overstatement of intentions at the time of the birth. Most of the discrepancy, however, results from parents’ perceived social and economic barriers to marriage. Specifically, unmarried parents have a long list of financial and relationship prerequisites they believe must be met in order for them to wed. Combined with other factors, these standards lead to an indeterminate delay in marriage.