Study: Couples who receive government assistance report less marital satisfaction

Like Fanny Price’s mother in Mansfield Park, those who marry for love only to live in poverty might actually advise singles to seek out a marriage of money and convenience. Studies have repeatedly shown that low-income couples report less marital satisfaction and commitment.

But, fortunately, through programs like Medicaid and food stamps, the government provides assistance to the needy — and that surely helps those on the low end of the income scale to experience a little more joy in married life, right? Wrong. A new study from the University of Missouri shows that couples that experience the combination of earning low incomes and receiving government assistance had even lower levels of marital satisfaction and commitment than couples earning low incomes but not receiving government assistance:

“We found that there’s a unique relationship among income level, government assistance and marital satisfaction and commitment,” said David Schramm, assistant professor in Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Environmental Sciences. “The study confirms that low income does have a negative impact on marital quality, but there are additional factors as well. The relationship between income and marital satisfaction is influenced by other issues, including whether or not the couple receives some form of government assistance.”

In the study, couples with low incomes (less than $20,000 per year) scored significantly lower on five of the six dimensions of marital quality: overall satisfaction, commitment, divorce proneness, feelings of being trapped in a marriage, and negative interaction. Married individuals who received government assistance reported similar scores. Couples that experienced the combination of earning low-incomes while receiving government assistance had drastically lower levels of overall marital satisfaction and commitment.

It’s pretty easy to see why earning too little money to comfortably cover expenses strains a marriage. As Schramm put it, “Economic hardship, the feeling of strain and tension associated with money issues, tends to be a driver for other stressors. For example, if couples can’t pay the bills, then they are likely to be more irritable and stressed about other areas of life. This leads to negative interactions between spouses or individual feelings of being trapped because they can’t survive on their own. It’s a constant drain on many aspects of marital quality and overall well-being.”

It’s less easy to see why government assistance would further weaken sentiments of satisfaction — until you consider the issue through the prism of happiness research. Ever since I heard American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks speak at a Heritage Foundation Bloggers Briefing more than a year ago, I’ve been enamored with his most hopeful of messages: Earned success is, in fact, the surest path to happiness. And Brooks has the research to prove it. Maybe, just maybe, couples receiving government assistance, conscious that they didn’t earn that assistance, experience a diminished self-worth as a result.

The University of Missouri study doesn’t posit reasons for the lack of satisfaction in government-assisted unions, but it does make note of the fact that few studies have looked at the link between such assistance and marital satisfaction and encourages further research. Schramm also said, based on his findings, he plans to implement an education program that targets low-income couples who receive government assistance. This program will provide additional resources for the couple, including healthy relationship and wellness education, employment training and financial planning. I like the sound of that — it’s vital that folks know the facts, in this and in everything — but I can’t help but hope that Schramm will include a work component in the program. That is, I hope he “provides” these resources in return for some kind of work from recipients. Perhaps they could perform basic research assistance for Schramm or do some simple gardening about the University of Missouri. Perhaps, after they complete the education program, they could turn around and help teach it. Just something that enables them to feel they’ve earned a spot in the program and haven’t just been handed it because they happen to be poor and dissatisfied.

Just as throwing more money at education has done nothing to raise test scores, so throwing more resources at those already experiencing a diminished self-worth at the lack of earning won’t make them happier. The worth of work for the dignity it imparts to its performers must again be espoused — over and against the lie that material advantages alone are at the root of the greater satisfaction reported by higher-income couples. True freedom to pursue happiness — necessarily through work — exists only where redistribution of wealth doesn’t rob those who do work from the joy of keeping the fruits of their labor and doesn’t rob those who lack materially from realizing that not all money is equal and it’s not handouts that will solve their problems — it’s earned success.