Study finds minimum wage increase delays marriages and significantly reduces divorce rates

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 Marriage and Family Journalwas the first to systematically examine the impact of raising the minimum wage on the stability of marriage in the United States.

“I have studied marriage and divorce for 30 years and have spent most of that time studying low-income couples in their early years of marriage. Over that time, I have closely followed the federal government’s efforts to promote stronger marriages in low-income populations,” said study author Benjamin Karney, professor and co-director of the UCLA Marriage and Close Relationships Laboratory.

“To date, these 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 didn’t match what my own research on low-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 made my colleagues and I wonder: Would policies that reduce income inequality affect marriage and divorce, even if they don’t directly target relationships? Our new paper addresses this question.”

For the study, researchers analyzed data collected by the Current Population Survey, which includes 60,000 households, and the American Community Survey, which includes 300,000 households. Data were collected from 2004 to 2015, and the analysis focused on individuals aged 18 to 35, who make up the majority of minimum wage earners.

Despite concerns about the potential for raising the minimum wage to result in unemployment, the researchers found that increases in the minimum wage had significant positive effects on earnings and no effect on hours worked. Increases in the minimum wage were also associated with reduced rates of marriage and divorce among low-income families. Karney and colleagues found that a $1-per-hour increase in the state minimum wage corresponded to a 3% to 6% decline in marriage rates and a 7% to 15% decline in divorce rates at 1- and 2-year intervals. .

“Policies that make life easier for couples with financial difficulties can have powerful effects on marriage and divorce without ever teaching anyone anything,” Karney told PsyPost. “The implication of this work is that policymakers who care about the health and stability of working families should invest in programs that improve their quality of life, regardless of whether those programs directly target the way couples communicate. When given adequate resources, couples can figure out how to communicate without the help of relationship educators.”

Karney and his colleagues were able to conduct a quasi-experimental study “exploring similarities between states in the US that have or have not changed their minimum wage”, providing evidence of causality rather than just correlational relationships. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.

“While the analyzes reported in this paper clearly demonstrate that raising the minimum wage leads to reductions in early marriages and divorces, the available data has not been able to address the mechanism of this effect,” Karney said. “It is for future research to examine whether raising the minimum wage has affected marriage and divorce decisions, reducing financial stress, increasing couples’ confidence in the future, increasing partners’ esteem for each other, 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 families, which reduces divorce rates by up to 25%.

“It’s easy for policymakers and those working with couples to assume that the fate of a relationship is in the partners’ hands, and that’s the assumption that drives attention to educational interventions,” Karney said. “This work supports an alternative perspective: the way two people relate to each other in their most intimate moments is profoundly affected by circumstances outside the couple and beyond their control.”

The study, “Raising the State Minimum Wage Delays Marriage and Reduces Divorce Among Low-Income Families,” was authored by Benjamin R. Karney, Jeffrey B. Wenger, Melanie A. Zaber, and Thomas N. Bradbury.

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