New research provides evidence that states that raised their minimum wages delayed marriages and reduced divorce rates among low-wage earners. The study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, was the first to systematically examine the impact of minimum wages increases on marriage stability in the United States.
“I have been studying marriage and divorce for 30 years, and have spent most of that time studying lower-income couples in their first years of marriage. Throughout that time, I have closely followed the efforts of the federal government to promote stronger marriages in lower-income populations,” said study author Benjamin Karney, a professor and the co-director of the UCLA Marriage and Close Relationships Lab.
“To date, those efforts have focused exclusively on relationship education, an approach that assumes that the difficulties of poorer couples stem from not knowing how to communicate effectively. That did not match what my own research on lower-income couples was telling me. In our studies, the main obstacle to a happy marriage for poor couples was the stress of being poor. This got my colleagues and me wondering: would policies that reduce income inequality affect marriage and divorce, even though they do not target relationships directly? Our new paper addresses that question.”
For their study, the researchers analyzed data collected by the Current Population Survey, which includes 60,000 households, and the American Community Survey, which includes 300,000 households. The data were collected from 2004 through 2015, and analysis the focused on individuals aged 18 to 35, who comprise the majority of minimum wage earners.
Despite concerns about the potential for minimum wage increases to result in disemployment, the researchers found that minimum wage increases had significant positive effects on earnings and no effect on hours worked. Increases in the minimum wage were also associated with reduced rates of both marriage and divorce among low-wage households. Karney and his colleagues found that a $1 per hour increase in the state minimum wage corresponded to an 3%–6% decline in marriage rates and a 7%–15% decline in divorce rates at 1- and 2-year time lags.
“Policies that make life easier for couples that are struggling financially can have powerful effects on marriage and divorce without ever teaching anyone anything,” Karney told PsyPost. “The implication of this work is that policy-makers who care about the health and stability of working families should be invested in programs that improve their quality of life, regardless of whether those programs directly target how couples communicate. When given adequate resources, couples can figure out how to communicate without any help from relationship educators.”
Karney and his colleagues were able to conduct a quasi-experimental study “by exploiting similarities between states in the US that did or did not change their minimum wage,” providing evidence of causality rather than just correlational relationships. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“Although the analyses reported in this paper demonstrate clearly that raising the minimum wage leads to reductions in early marriage and divorce, the available data were not able to address the mechanism of this effect,” Karney said. “It is for future research to examine whether raising the minimum wage affected decisions about marriage and divorce by reducing financial stress, increasing couples’ confidence in the future, raising partners’ esteem for one another, or something else.”
The researchers noted that the findings are consistent with the effects of the Minnesota Family Investment Program, a federal-state program that provides income assistance to low-wage households, which has been found to reduce divorce rates by up to 25%.
“It is easy for policy makers and those who work with couples to assume that the fate of a relationship is in partners’ hands, and this is the assumption that directs attention toward educational interventions,” Karney said. “This work supports an alternative perspective: the way that two people relate to each other in their most intimate moments is profoundly affected by circumstances outside the couple and outside of their control.”
The study, “State minimum wage increases delay marriage and reduce divorce among low-wage households“, was authored by Benjamin R. Karney, Jeffrey B. Wenger, Melanie A. Zaber, and Thomas N. Bradbury.