Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Mandated Marriage: America's Moralization and Keeping Tabs on the Poor

On May 17 KansasCity.com posted an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://www.stltoday.com/) titled, “St. Louis-area Town Rejects Recognition of Unmarried Couples.” The article briefly highlights a growing policy trend here in the United States: the mandating of marriage. This trend seems to be fueled by two desires on the part of our current and overwhelmingly misinformed government leaders. The first is to “moralize” citizens judged to not be living the dreams of our Puritan forefathers. The second is to use various surveillance tactics to keep tabs on the poor. Through close surveillance of the poor, government officials can ensure wealthier citizens that the poor won’t interfere in their public spaces, gated communities, and attempts at keeping their family values as “pure” as possible.

Mayor Norman McCourt of Black Jack, Missouri, where the measure to change the definition of family was voted down, gave this quote in an issued statement:

The purpose of these occupancy permit laws generally is to avoid overcrowding by non-related parties, assure the lifelong maintenance of the city’s housing stock, prevent new buyers from being obligated to repair residences that were not kept up to code, preserve the character of the neighborhoods and the city, and to protect the general safety and welfare of the city’s residents.

Mayor McCourt is implying that poor folks are deviant. They intentionally move in together just to distress the government and the “good” citizens. Poor people have no understanding of what it means to take pride in one’s property, and tax-paying, law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have to pay for their carelessness. Like larger cities and towns that have gentrified, the mayor does not want the poor people staining the “image” of the city. And finally, poor people are so deviant that they live together to come up with crimes and other means of tormenting “good” citizens.

It is clear that the mayor as well as those who voted down the measure, which would have permitted an unmarried couple who parented three children to live together, pathologize the poor. They lack understanding about why two people may not want to marry despite the fact that they share three children. Money is most likely an issue if they’re poor (duh?) and perhaps a legal commitment isn’t the best idea despite onlookers questioning, “Why did they have three children together?” A piece of advice I can offer to these onlookers is: Get over it and worry about your own life.

I don’t know much about Black Jack, but I think it’s safe to assume that children of these “good” citizens have used a similar strategy in college or graduate school or as young professionals. It is today’s reality that unrelated people of all class backgrounds move in together to save money. Cohabitation, no matter who is involved, is a strategy. My husband and I, part of the “faux middle class” (we’re educated but really don’t make enough money to be considered middle class), moved in together the year before we got married. We lived in a large city at the time where rents were high. It made more sense for us to pool our money together and “live in sin.” This wasn’t necessarily favorable to some of our family members; however, we are privileged enough to not have to worry about the government interfering in our personal lives.

If the fear is that poor people living together are conspiring to commit some kind of crime like making or selling drugs, maybe communities should start thinking about how to find better jobs for unskilled workers and how to genuinely include them in their community. At this point so many programs for the poor are being cut and the middle class is being squeezed on all sides due to rising healthcare and housing costs (while the wealthy continue to receive tax breaks, mind you), it’s a wonder that more of us don’t take up some kind of illegal practice just to make ends meet!

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