Stressed about money? Don’t worry, money will fix it.

So apparently some researchers got together and determined that the reason poor people get divorced more isn’t that they value marriage less than middle class folks, but because being poor is stressful! From this press release:

“Although low-income and high-income respondents reported similar romantic standards and similar problems with relationship processes such as communication, low-income respondents were more likely than affluent couples to report that their romantic relationships were negatively affected by economic and social issues such as money problems, drinking and drug use.

[…]

“The federal government has spent $1 billion on initiatives to strengthen marriage among low-income populations,” said Dr Benjamin Karney. “Often these are based on the assumption that there must be something wrong with how people on low incomes view marriage or that they just are not very good at managing intimate relationships.”

And my favorite:

“The new research suggests that government initiatives to strengthen marriage among low-income populations should move beyond promoting the value of marriage and instead focus on the actual problems that low-income couples face.” [my emphasis]

Hmmm, I dunno. That sounds like communism to me!

Yes, being low income is stressful. And there’s nothing exciting or rewarding about the stress that comes with scraping by financially (as there may be with some high-stress careers). It’s just a daily, grinding worry. And many of the things that could alleviate that stress require the very stuff that’s causing it in the first place.

We live in a world where taunting neon dollar signs appear above just about everything, from toilet paper to dental care. Middle-income folks don’t see a lot of the dollar signs. They see some, of course, but only when the amount after the dollar sign gets to a certain size. So when they try to give advice to low-income people about things like marriage or psychological well-being, this is what happens:

What you say: “Go on a date night.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Go out to eat once in a while.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Take a vacation.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Go to counseling.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Find someone to take care of your child for a while and take some time for yourself before you burn out.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Take a homeopathic stress remedy.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

It’s not that we doubt the wisdom of this advice. It’s not that we don’t want to do those things. It’s just that our whole society is set up in a way where everything costs MONEY. And if you’re thinking (as people have said to me), “What, it’s only a $30 copay” or “You can find a babysitter for $10/an hour,” well, that right there is $50 for just one counseling session and that’s 1/4 of my food/gas/clothing/toiletries budget for the month. Do that twice a month, and it’s half the budget. When things are tight and tense, even a copay for counseling for a substance and/or marital problem can feel like an added stressor.

It’s not that we don’t value our marriages. It’s just that we value things like eating and having heat and water in our homes, too.

If you have a lot of family support – parents or siblings or aunts who can watch your child while you take a date night or a nap or see a marriage counselor – that makes a huge difference. There are low-income communities where that still happens, but for many of us, as our society becomes more fractured, and as jobs increasingly relocate families (I’ve lost several friends to job relocation in the past year alone), we find ourselves in a very stressful, very lonely situation. (Also, if your family is unreliable due to psychological, substance, or other issues, you might not want them taking care of your children.)

Now, suppose that somehow (credit card, relatives, personal loan, fairies, whatever) you come up with the money to pay for a therapist. At some point in your discussion with the therapist (who may otherwise be quite helpful but is addled by middle income dollar-blindness) you’re going to have a conversation where you tell them about how stressed out you are from working all the time and never being able to catch up on your bills and when you come home your toddler is all over you and you just never get a break and you never talk to your spouse anymore because you’re both stretched past your limits … and the therapist will say something like, “Why don’t you hire a babysitter and go on a vacation?”

You see? The solution to stress caused by lack of money is to do things that cost money! Nice how that works, isn’t it?

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