With most of us under stay-at-home orders for the past month, we are all feeling a bit socially famished these days. Even the introverts among us, like yours truly, are looking forward to being able to physically reconnect with friends, family, and coworkers as soon as it is safe to do so. This pandemic has reminded us just how much we need other people, and that healthy, stable relationships are intrinsic to human flourishing. But too many Americans, particularly those from lower-income communities, face a constant reality of broken, unhealthy, and fragile family connections that can hinder their ability to form healthy, lasting unions.
In her latest book, Social Poverty: Low-Income Parents and the Struggle for Family and Community Ties, University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Sarah Halpern-Meekin explores relationship hunger among low-income parents and proposes an expansion of our understanding of poverty beyond just financial deprivation to include the lack of healthy emotional and relational bonds that nourish and sustain us. I recently spoke to Dr. Halpern-Meekin about her book and why a broader understanding of poverty to include relational gaps is key to programs targeting low-income communities.
Alysse ElHage: You propose an “expanded sense of what poverty means” to include the emotional and relational gaps that many young people experience as a result of broken or unhealthy family life. How is the recognition of social poverty tied to how we define and promote social capital?
Sarah Halpern-Meekin: I define social poverty as when someone feels they don’t have the close, trusting, reliable relationships with friends or family that they need to meet their socioemotional needs. This is distinct from how we often talk about social capital; there, we tend to focus on the use-value of relationships. For example, do you have social connections that will help you get a job referral, a loan if you’re in a tough financial spot, etc.? While these sorts of social connections can be key to financial well-being, and are certainly are very important, that misses out on how people’s relationships are key to meeting their social and emotional, rather than material, needs. Because humans are social creatures, not having these connections and not having these social needs met can have a big impact not only on our mental health, but our physical health as well.
In our current times, with people needing to self-quarantine and engage in social distancing, there are concerns about more folks experiencing social poverty. And because it would be on a widespread scale, one journalist even referred this as possibly leading to a “social recession.” This reflects an appreciation for the social poverty perspective, in which relationships are a core need in and of themselves.
ElHage: As you explain in your book, socially impoverished young people attach a great deal of meaning to becoming parents. I immediately thought of my younger brother, who grew up never really knowing his dad, and how he responded with excitement to his long-time girlfriend’s (now wife) surprise pregnancy, assuring her he’d be a great dad and adding, “Maybe this child will give our lives the purpose we need.” Why does the experience of parenthood mean so much to young adults who grew up in unhealthy families?
Halpern-Meekin: We all see so much hope and possibility in the face of a young child. This may be emphasized for parents who are struggling to find their footing in other parts of life, as the role of parent offers an opportunity to succeed that might feel unavailable in school or on the job. Kathy Edin and her colleagues have done some great research looking specifically at the meaning having a child can have for young, lower-income mothers and fathers.
From a social poverty perspective, having a child means you are building a relationship with this new little person, which is incredibly meaningful to parents. And it also means you get the chance to give your child the family life you wanted as a child. For some people this means trying to replicate the joys of their childhoods for their children. For others, it means trying to help their child avoid some of the pains or struggles they experienced growing up. For parents I talked to, they often described a desire, like your brother did, to be there for their child in ways they feel their parents might not have been.
When we remember how important relationships are to our well-being and to motivating our right behavior, we will do a better job of building programs that meet their goals and objectives.
ElHage: You followed a group of unmarried couples who participated in the federally funded Family Expectations relationship education program for a year, often interviewing them in their homes. Despite their excitement about becoming parents, many of these couples experienced several challenges to healthy family life, such as becoming a parent, a young adult, and a partner all at the same time. How did navigating all these roles at once affect them? And did it make it harder for them to break free from the cycle of social poverty?
Halpern-Meekin: As many of us have probably experienced, when you’re dealing with a lot of changes in life all at once, it can feel overwhelming. For example, if you’ve ever had a baby and moved in the span of a few months. Our brains and our emotions get pulled in so many directions at once; it can be easy to let things we’d normally do fall by the wayside accidentally.
For the young adults I followed, they were often taking on at least three big life changes at once. In our culture, young adulthood is often a time of exploration. That’s true for the people I was interviewing, too, since they were in their early twenties, on average. They were figuring things out around education, jobs, careers, living situations, finances, etc. In addition, a broader task in young adulthood, from a human development perspective, is separating from parents and taking on responsibility for yourself.
They were also transitioning to parenthood and into committed romantic partnerships. These roles, in our culture, require that someone be responsible, trustworthy, and able to put someone else’s needs ahead of their own. But these role requirements can conflict with the more self-focused young adult role.
Making each of these transitions can be challenging enough but doing them all at once can be a near-impossibility, especially when what each role asks us to do conflicts with other roles we’re trying to take on at the same time. These circumstances make it more likely that someone could experience social poverty. For example, in trying to be a good parent, a young man might distance himself from his friends and their partying. While this potentially helps him fulfill his roles as a father and romantic partner, it makes it more likely that he feels like he’s missing out on being a “normal” young adult, and it leaves him with fewer people in his life who can provide social and emotional support through challenging times (which can be quite common with the stresses of new parenthood).
ElHage: Many of the young men and women you interviewed had trouble recognizing normal versus abnormal conflict in relationships. How do programs like Family Expectations help fill this need for young couples who want to stay together, especially for their kids, but often don’t feel confident in their perceptions of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships?
Halpern-Meekin: For people who’d grown up feeling that they’d not seen many good romantic relationships and hadn’t experienced many themselves, they said it was hard to know what kind of fighting and how much arguing were okay. This could mean that disagreements went overboard into unhealthy places, or couples worried they were destined for breakup because they weren’t on the same page. So, normalizing healthy conflict, was a key part of the program for many. This included setting expectations for what’s normal and okay. For example, it’s normal to disagree with your partner. It’s not a bad sign for your relationship, so continuing to invest in growing that relationship makes sense. But it’s important to handle that conflict in ways that are respectful and safe, that allow you to truly hear your partner’s perspective, and that are not dredging up old wounds from the past with every new argument. Some parents said that hearing these messages, accompanied by concrete “tools” (like “time outs”), was really helpful to them.
ElHage: You argue that relationship education programs like Family Expectations should be evaluated through a different lens. Why? And what recommendations do you have for programs servicing low-income communities?
Halpern-Meekin: The original intent of government-funded relationship education programs was laid out in the 1996 welfare reform legislation, which said that a way of preventing or lifting people out of financial poverty was through marriage. Therefore, these programs were evaluated against these standards: did they lead to lower poverty rates, higher marriage rates, or lower divorce rates? Generally speaking, on all three fronts, these programs have not been a big success.
But continuing to evaluate them by those standards meant that we missed out on the meaning participants were finding in those workshops. I started with this puzzle—evaluators say these programs don’t work, but participants say they love them—and went from there in trying to discern the value parents were seeing but evaluators were not.
So often we focus on perfecting the curriculum, and while that certainly does matter, there are also other features that get people in the door and keep them coming back, and these features can be connected to social poverty issues. Program participants want to feel a connection with program staff and others in their workshops. They want to be welcomed warmly, to feel they’re missed when they’re not there, and to be treated with respect. This means offering participants a well-appointed facility to come to, a staff that doesn’t stigmatize their choices or circumstances, and opportunities to socialize with and hear the perspectives of others in the program. Offering someone a smile and a snack when they walk in the door or being sure to return a participant’s phone call promptly rarely come into our discussions of program evaluation—not just with relationship education, but across social service sectors—yet these are part of the core of a program, communicating whether it treats its clientele with dignity. Positive, supportive relationships are part and parcel of delivering quality programming.
My point about taking a social poverty perspective in services and programs that target lower-income groups is a broad one. I see it as equally applicable to services both in and out of the relationship education field. We should purposefully construct services and programs to build—or, at the very least, not erode—relationships.
Research across a variety of fields suggests that these connections can be powerful. When we remember how important relationships are to our well-being and to motivating our right behavior, we will do a better job of building programs that meet their goals and objectives.