When it comes to reducing poverty and inequality, progressives typically favor strengthening labor market institutions—like the minimum wage and collective bargaining—and investing in social insurance, including work supports and income supplements for working-class families. Conservatives, for their part, have traditionally centered on the role of the family, and specifically marriage, as a private safety net. The public safety net, they argue, too often undermines the family by providing disincentives to marry and incentives to divorce or separate.
This argument seems rather dubious to us as a matter of theory. Most conservatives argue that marriage has considerable financial and emotional benefits. We tend to agree with them on this, with the caveat that the quality of the friendship between spouses is essential, not just the structure itself. At the same time, the United States does not have a particularly generous welfare state for working-class people. Thus, if the benefits that marriage provides are as substantial as conservatives say they are, it is hard to see how they do not outweigh the ones provided by our comparatively meager welfare state. This is especially the case given that working-class people in the United States hold “more traditional values toward marriage” than higher-incomes people.
The empirical evidence supporting this argument is also weak. Northern European countries have much more generous social safety nets than the U.S., and children there are more, not less, likely than American children to be raised in two-parent families. As for the effect of welfare in the United States in particular, in a review of research conducted up to the replacement of AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in 1996, economist Hillary Hoynes concluded that the “evidence suggests that marriage decisions are not sensitive to financial decisions. The literature on the effect of welfare on out-of-wedlock births is also quite conclusive. …. Overall these effects are often insignificant and when they are not, they are small.”
Since the replacement of AFDC with TANF, the number of low-income parents receiving income assistance has plummeted. But this does not appear to be due to an increase in marriage, an outcome proponents of welfare reform hoped to see. Based on their research, Hoynes and her colleagues conclude there is “little evidence … that welfare reform has encouraged more marriage.”
To be clear, we’re not suggesting that what are commonly called “marriage penalties” in benefit programs are unproblematic. But we think the reason they’re problematic has less to do with incentive effects related to marriage, and more to do with fairness and effectiveness in serving struggling families who are married or coupled in addition to single-parent households.
Along these lines, instead of continuing to think of expanded social insurance as an impediment to improving the stability and strength of working-class families, we believe that pro-marriage conservatives should be more open to the possibility it is part of the solution. As we discuss in a recent report for the Center for American Progress, a large body of research underscores how financial stress is a risk factor for marital conflict, violence, and divorce. For example, in their important book, Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing, Paul Amato and his colleagues find that “lower levels of income, educational attainment, and occupational prestige were associated with higher rates of marital problems, less marital happiness, and greater instability.”
Financial stress is a risk factor for marital conflict, violence, and divorce.
In short, there is good reason to think that work and family benefits that relieve the financial, time, and other family-related pressures that working-class couples feel could be helpful when it comes to increasing relationship and marital stability.
In our report, we highlight a number of policy changes along these lines, but will highlight just two here.
First, we should reform work-family policies to ensure that all workers have access to the kinds of family-related benefits that most higher-income workers have, including paid family leave, earned sick days, the right to request flexible and predictable schedules, and high-quality child care. Amato and his colleagues found that “dual-earner arrangements are linked with positive marital quality among middle-class couples and with negative marital quality among working-class couples.” They attribute this difference partly to work-family conflicts among working-class couples, contributing to both greater marital tension and lower job satisfaction. Better work-family policies would help reduce the relationship-damaging stress disproportionately felt by dual-earner working-class couples.
Second, we should ensure that disadvantaged married parents—as well as unmarried couples raising children—have access to key work and income supports, particularly temporary re-employment assistance. TANF was supposed to support the “maintenance of two-parent families,” but it has been a shocking failure when it comes to actually helping them. Currently, about 5.2 million children below the poverty line are living in married two-parent families, and another 1.4 million are living in unmarried two-parent families, but a mere 84,000 two-parent families receive basic income support and employment services through TANF. Outside of California, fewer than 30,000 two-parent families receive such assistance.
This is particularly distressing because research suggests that well-designed temporary assistance programs for two-parent families could have positive effects on marriage. Most notably, the original version of the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, a welfare reform demonstration program that was evaluated in the mid-1990s, reduced divorce among disadvantaged two-parent families participating in it. The reductions in divorce were particularly large—70 percent—among black married couples. In addition, both MFIP and Milwaukee’s New Hope project increased rates of marriage among disadvantaged single mothers.
Well-designed temporary assistance programs for two-parent families could have positive effects on marriage.
These progressive demonstration projects ensured that low-income married- and cohabiting-couple families had an adequate income to support themselves while searching for work or addressing issues that limited their work capacity, including through transitional jobs, re-employment, and other services. Unlike the current TANF program, these programs did not utilize unreasonable “participation rates” or harshly punitive measures mostly aimed at reducing the number of people who got help; instead, they emphasized helping struggling parents obtain and maintain stable employment, while meeting their basic needs.
Unfortunately, the current federal TANF law and financial structure makes operating programs like the original MFIP or New Hope all but impossible for states. To address this problem, we recommend that the federal government establish a national Temporary Assistance demonstration project that combines elements of both the original MFIP program and New Hope.
Finally, while we have no doubt that family-friendly benefits and programs like these could make a real difference when it comes to family stability, they need to be coupled with stronger labor market institutions. So, as a closing thought, if we really want to promote strong marital unions, let’s make it easier for workers to form and join labor unions. As this blog has noted, recently published research finds that “controlling for many factors, union membership is positively and significantly associated with marriage”—a relationship that is “largely explained by the increased income, regularity and stability of employment and fringe benefits that come with union membership.”
It’s time for conservatives to stop maligning investments in work supports and income supplements as anti-family. At the same time, progressives need to do a better job of explaining how these kinds of policies can support marriage and strengthen families. If they take a careful look at the evidence, both sides may be surprised by what they find.
Shawn Fremstad is a Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress and a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Melissa Boteach is the Vice President of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at Center for American Progress.