Here, eight years later, I remember the author's name -- Katherine Boo -- and the name of the piece: The Marriage Cure. It examined whether marriage was a cure for poverty in the "post-welfare" era.
I also remember where I was when I read it (at home on a Sunday relaxing with the sun shining on me from my bedroom's bay window), what time of day it was and everything. When I finished it I called my friend PJ (she has a doctoral degree that focuses on issues related to children, education and poverty) to discuss what I had read. The story was that good to me.
Boo won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004 for this piece. Here's an excerpt:
Kim has moist brown eyes, a body that neighborhood males call "ripe" and "aching for my love time," and a bleeding ulcer that an emergency-room doctor ascribes, not implausibly, to stress. It is her habit to think with a fist on her chin, and the puzzle that engrosses her is how to live a life less indigent and criminal than the one in which she was raised. The youngest of seven children, she was the first of her four sisters to forgo having babies as a teenager. She hoped as well to be the first to go to college, and had recently taken a series of tests for a general-equivalency diploma. Although she didn't know anyone from a background like hers who had obtained a college degree, she didn't see why a smart woman couldn't pull it off. For several years, she'd been trying to do the precise opposite of what people around her had done, in the hope of eventually attaining what she termed "a healthy, wealthy, normal-lady life." Marriage, like staying out of jail, struck her as a vital part of normal-lady living.