The XX Factor

Does Government Assistance Affect Marriage Quality?

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A study in this month’s issue of the Journal of Family and Economic Issues claims that people who make less than $20,000 per year and receive some kind of government assistance (food stamps, Medicaid, etc.) experience “significantly lower levels of overall marital satisfaction and commitment” than either those who earn similar incomes without assistance or those who have higher incomes (whether or not they receive government help). While the idea that money troubles might influence the happiness of a relationship is pretty uncontroversial, this study—led by David Schramm of the University of Missouri—seems to have been motivated by a belief that being on the dole could make things even worse. The study presents evidence for a correlation between the two factors—marital satisfaction and commitment on the one hand, and receipt of government assistance on the other—but the researchers dutifully note that establishing causation is, at this stage, out of the question. Odd, then, that according to PhysOrg, Schramm already “plans to implement [family] education programs aimed at low-income couples who receive government assistance.”

All this “implementation” and “aiming” seems a bit premature for a study that has effectively only suggested that the connection between marriage quality and government assistance might merit further study—unless justifying such programs was the aim to begin with. Not so surprisingly, upon closer inspection, Schramm’s study looks like a barely veiled political attack on government assistance.

Even a quick skim of his introductory discussion makes clear that Schramm is working from assumptions that are deeply conservative. The deceptively simple ideological launch pad for his research—that “…a healthy, satisfying marriage provides a context in which adults and children can thrive, but when they deteriorate and/or dissolve, they can have negative social, emotional, and economic consequences for all involved”—takes for granted that a traditional, grossly limited model of family life is some kind of ideal.  And for a work of ostensibly objective social science, the paper demonstrates a striking hostility toward divorce, arguing that splits “exact negative economic consequences for taxpayers and the broader society.” This may (or may not) be true in terms of dollars and cents, but Schramm jumps from there to strongly implying that preventing divorce is therefore a logical goal. Of course, this ignores all the terribly concrete reasons why a couple might break things off: abuse, growing apart, falling out of love, etc. 

Additionally, Schramm seems bothered by the idea that single women on welfare (women who, it stands to reason, feel less financially dependent on men) might not think of marriage as being their utmost goal in life. He concludes, rather anxiously, that “when women who receive welfare assistance do marry, they may not be as satisfied or committed to the future of the relationship.” So, better to be totally poor and dependent on a man than somewhat financially secure and unattached?

On a methodological level, Schramm’s survey questions are pat and simplistic: “Have you ever considered leaving your spouse?” could be answered in the affirmative by many happy couples. Furthermore, he admits that his research does not account for any number of other traits, such as work-precluding disabilities and drug dependencies, that may be more common among aid recipients and that might impinge upon his population’s marital bliss. And yet we’re still expected to buy the implied suggestion that taking food stamps away would make things better? 

The kicker? Schramm’s survey sample is completely unrepresentative. According to the study itself, only 30 percent of the prospective subjects who were called ultimately participated, and those who did were almost entirely white and from Utah. Schramm writes that this “limits the generalizability of the findings.”

“Makes them meaningless” might be a better phrase.