TIME women

One Husband Can’t Save a Low-Income Woman from Poverty—She’ll Need Three or Four

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Left-leaning poverty experts are all in a tizzy this week about conservative arguments that the answer to poverty is marriage — to “stay in school, get married and have children—in that order,” as Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush, most recently put it.

They’re arguing that the best ways to combat the multi-generational cycle of poverty and near-poverty that now traps one in three American women, and 28 million children are education, decently-paid jobs with benefits, high quality childcare and work supports like paid family leave.

These ideas aren’t new. They’re not sexy or exciting. And they’re certainly not likely to get any meaningful traction in our current Congress.

That’s why I’ve come up with a hot new idea. It’ll boost the marriage rate, combat child poverty, and, very likely, promote no-cost family planning among the poor – all without any new burden on taxpayers. It’s polyandry – think “Sister Wives” turned “Brother Husbands” — and it was inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich, the acerbic author best known for her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

At a launch event on Wednesday for the new Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, Ehrenreich, who took jobs as a waitress, nursing-home aide, hotel housekeeper, Wal-Mart associate and maid for a house-cleaning service to learn first-hand about poverty, shared a fresh new perspective on the just-say-yes-to-the-dress solution.

“When you say to women, to get out of poverty you should get married, my question to them is how many men you have to marry,” she said. “Marrying a 10-dollar-an-hour man gets you nowhere, so you’d really have to marry three or four.”

The audience broke out in laughter. But I think we should take Ehrenreich seriously. We have to face reality. If low-wage men don’t present women with much of a good deal, why not double, or triple, or quadruple them up? Pool resources, boost household income, and promote family values at the same time?

I realize this is a little hard to envision. Polyandry — the practice of a woman taking more than one husband at a time — has traditionally been considered (by majority-male anthropologists) an all-but-impossible aberration. More recent research, however, has found more than 75 societies world-wide in which women take multiple husbands, an article by Alice Dregger revealed in the Atlantic last year. Polyandry, it turns out, can be an efficient way of dealing with tough times, and constrained resources.

The United States would, of course, have to change its laws regarding marriage. But that’s not so impossible; Utah may already be en route to a much-weakened anti-polygamy law. And we’d have to find a way to have our new pro-polyandry law apply only to low-income households, to keep the whole income-inequality thing from taking off once again. Somehow, I don’t think better-off men would raise a fuss about the constitutional issues.

I can already see the TLC reality show. Promo photo: Four proud, doting men flanking one exhausted-yet-empowered woman. She wearing a newly-purchased business suit; the men clad in whatever the male wardrobe equivalent would be of those frumpy cotton dresses so often favored by multiple wives. Chinos pulled too high up at the waist? Striped polo shirts, tightly tucked in? A toolbelt at the waist of the favored husband of the day?

Season One: Learning to Share. Season Two: “Man Flu” Strikes the Compound. Season Three: Has Anyone Seen Mom? Season Four: Who Needs Her, Anyway?

The possibilities really are endless.

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