A new study conducted by psychologists at UCLA and economists at the RAND corporation has found that raising the minimum wage could help improve marriages and lower the divorce rate, at least among low-income workers.
It's a finding that turns the traditional approach to marriage outcome improvement, taken by many in the federal government, on its head, according to one of the researchers.
What did the Study Find?
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The study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family is by lead author and UCLA psychologist Benjamin Karney, UCLA psychology professor Thomas Bradbury, RAND economists Jeffrey Wenger and Melanie Zaber. It examined the effects of minimum wage increases on divorce rates and marriage among low-income workers.
They found that when the minimum wage was raised by $1 above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, "a 7%–15% decline in divorce one and two years following the increase" followed, according to a statement from UCLA about the study.
When their analysis was split by gender as the available data was, that decline in divorce came out to "a 10% to 15% reduction in divorce rates for men and a 7% to 12% reduction for women."
Aside from reductions in divorce, the study also found that a $1 per hour increase in the state minimum wage actually decreased the marriage rate 3%–6% for low-income workers -- likely a delay in marriage that brings those workers closer to higher-earning college graduates when it comes to marital timing.
The study defined low-wage workers as people earning $20 an hour or less, but found the same results when they redefined low wage workers as people earning $16 an hour or less.
They also found the same results when they used a definition of low-wage workers "based on household earnings relative to the federally defined poverty level," the UCLA statement said.
The data included people between the ages of 18 and 35, "who comprise the majority of minimum wage earners," in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, over time.
It's the first study to look at the effects of the minimum wage on low-income marriages and not just on income and employment, the lead author told NBC4.
How Do Finances Contribute to Marital Problems?
According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, there were roughly 28,767,947 divorced Americans over the age of 16 in 2020.
Researchers studying marriage and divorce rates have found a whole host of reasons why divorces occur, from infidelity to domestic violence.
Among them -- and according to at least one study from the University of Denver, one of the more common reasons -- are financial problems that "contributed to increased stress and tension within the relationship."
"It is harder to maintain an intimate connection with a partner when you’re struggling financially," Karney, who has studied low income marriage for 25 years, told NBC4. "It’s easier to be married when you’re making more money."
That's because of the way stress impacts communication.
"Stress is a circumstance that makes a demand on a person," he explained. "It demands coping, it demands adaptation."
Relationships take work too, as partners try to empathize with each other, compromise on problems, and communicate needs.
The more stressed someone is, the fewer "cognitive, mental and emotional resources" they have to devote to "the work of intimacy," where they can really pay attention and communicate without being distracted or upset, Karney said.
He's also found that “couples under stress simply have more issues and challenges to negotiate, which takes time away from the other kinds of activities that promote intimacy."
Those other kinds of activities can be as simple as conversations about what Netflix shows they want to watch together or what dreams and goals they have, which tend to fall by the wayside when "less fun conversations" like how to pay the bills are more pressing.
"Stress gives you hard things you have to spend time on, takes time away from the fun things, AND under stress, we are worse at dealing with those hard things," Karney said.
Why Does Raising the Minimum Wage Help?
Raising the minimum wage is a "policy that actually makes life easier for low-income couples," Karney said, relieving the stress that leads to marital strain.
It's a more direct approach than the one advocated by the federal Office of Family Assistance, which tends to focus on "skills-based healthy marriage education."
Those federal education programs, usually "designed to promote better communication skills and stronger relationships among low-income workers," have consumed "nearly a billion dollars" over the past 20 years, according to the UCLA statement.
"The programs in place were generally designed without consulting low income couples themselves," Karney said. "There was an assumption that if couples are having trouble in their marriage, it must be their fault."
But education on how to communicate doesn't really work if the issues causing communication problems are still there, in the same way that piano lessons don't result in much music if there isn't a piano to play, Karney said. If people are stressed, and if they don’t have time to spend together leisurely with their partners because they need to work long hours to make rent, their capacity to problem solve will remain limited.
And, like the other positive effects families saw from measures that gave them direct assistance, like the child tax credit, a higher minimum wage could mean other knock-on benefits to families with more stable relationships, lower divorce rates and better finances, Karney said.
"If you care about family values, you care about raising the minimum wage," Karney said.