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The Social Assistance of Marriage

In a new study on social assistance and marital decision-making in Canada, Cardus Family senior researcher Peter Jon Mitchell finds growing acceptance that getting married is a sound way to avoid going on the dole.

11 minute read
The Social Assistance of Marriage April 4, 2018  |  By Peter Jon Mitchell with Peter Stockland
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Convivium: The newest Cardus Family publication is a literature review rather than a full-blown research paper. What’s the difference between those two things, and why did you choose to go with the review rather than jumping into a complete research project?

Peter Jon Mitchell: The report is a review of the literature for understanding the research environment on a particular question, which is, "Does social assistance in Canada influence family formation, particularly marital formation?" The idea is the review will actually lead into a much larger project with Cardus Family and with our Work and Economics program. It is really the first step in a multi-step process.

Convivium: You say early in the review that there actually hasn't been a lot of detailed research in Canada on this topic relative to the U.S. There's some, but there hasn't been nearly as much attention paid in Canada to the link between the need for public assistance or social benefits and marriage or cohabitation. Were you surprised by how little work there's actually been done in this country?

Peter Jon Mitchell: I'm not surprised there's been less work done than in the U.S. In part, Canada’s a different policy and different cultural environment than the US. I think in the US you saw very early on with the Moynihan Report (in the 1960s) or with Welfare Reform in the ‘90s, those types of initiatives were asking these questions. We really haven't had the same history here in Canada. In fact, we don't really talk a whole lot about the role of marriage in a lot of public policy ways, particularly when it comes to poverty alleviation and our social programs. It's just not something that's really on the radar.

Convivium: It is kind of odd when you think about it, though, because we are very proud, justifiably or unjustifiably, of our social made safety-net and our, kind of, Scandinavian style of caring for people. We pride ourselves, rightly or wrongly, on being the people who give constantly to help other people. Yet we haven't bothered to look at one of the most important elements of whether that has net positive or negative effects on something as important as marriage and the relationships that people form with each other.

Is it because of the differences across the provinces? Or is it something that we're just so proud of what we have that we didn't think it was necessary to explore it?

Peter Jon Mitchell: Well, I think one factor is that social assistance is administered through the provinces, so there's going to be differences there. And in fact, the literature review shows that provincial economies and provincial policies do play a significant role. The same policy has vastly different outcomes within different provinces, so that's certainly part of it.

There has been a significant focus on one-parent families and how they fare within social assistance. One of the unsung success stories in Canada is that we’ve done a very good job over the last 30 or 40 years in reducing the portion of one-parent families that are on social assistance. I mean, they're still over-represented in social assistance, but there has been, generally, a fairly positive story on them.

Convivium: You say early on both that marriage is a key poverty fighter, and that lone parent families remain over-represented among those using social assistance. Why is that the case? What makes marriage such a key poverty fighter?

Peter Jon Mitchell: I think one of the reasons is simply family stability. Marriage as a social institution does provide stability, which also involves economic cooperation and some of those opportunities to navigate challenges a little bit more easily than some of the challenges that lone parents face. Obviously if there is job disruption, for example, then certainly lone parent families have less options, less help, in navigating the situation.

Convivium: Cardus Family has done a lot of work showing there is something about marriage that helps couples grasp the benefit of pooling things as opposed to having two independent entities circling each other. In the review, you note that unmarried couples are four times more likely to keep their money separate. Do we know why that is? You would think couples would say, okay, we're living under the same roof, we're eating the same loaf of bread, we're pretty much sharing everything, why would we not share our financial resources, too? Is it a fear that what's here today might not be here tomorrow?

Peter Jon Mitchell: I think that's exactly right. There is that lack of commitment that's undergirding some of those relationships. There are very good Canadian studies and Canadian data that's been done suggesting economic behaviours are very different between married couples and cohabitating couples. Furthermore, there's been other research in the U.S. that suggests some couples forego long-term relationship planning and enter into cohabitating relationships out of economic necessity. They do want to share the loaf of bread even though they haven't really talked about, well, where is this relationship going; what's the long term future? That's a significant difference, and it does play itself out.

Convivium: Although in Canada we don’t like to think in terms of class, the literature review suggests one thing at work here is socioeconomic stratification. What’s that about?

Peter Jon Mitchell: It seems to be a trend in Canada and elsewhere, and does seem to cut both ways, that being low income makes it more difficult to get into a married relationship. Some people have speculated that the marrying type are just more likely to also have higher education or other aspects that might contribute towards higher income. It's probably a bit of both.

Convivium: You depict interest in studying the connection between marriage and social assistance as an expanding conversation from the 1970s through the mid 1990s. In the ‘70s, it seemed to be kind of a sleeper issue. It wasn't paid much attention to and nobody saw causal relationships or even wanted to investigate whether they existed. And then it picked up steam. Was that because of the larger impetus towards social assistance reform, and recognition that social assistance programs simply weren't doing what they were meant to be delivering? Or was it an interest in what marriage actually does? Where did the forces for pushing that debate forward come from?

Peter Jon Mitchell: My sense is it came more from social assistance reform, particularly some of the discussion that was happening in the U.S. I think that was influencing the Canadian conversation among academics, as well. We certainly see that in the research. Sometimes there's reference made to earlier U.S. studies or debates going on in the US, as well, so I think it's part of the influence of the reforming of social assistance. There were some changes in Canada, too.

Convivium: In the early mid-90s, it seems some research being done in Canada advanced a possible conclusion that social assistance as a disincentive to marriage could be empirically demonstrated. You quote one researcher’s concern that welfare might provide disincentives to marriage and this effect could cause long-term social harm. Was that regarded as outlier research at the time? Did it cause a lot of controversy?

Peter Jon Mitchell: It’s evident from the ongoing debate that researchers had to grapple with this question of how social assistance affects marital decision-making. A lot of the debate ended up centering on the best way to try to measure that, and the difficulties in trying to measure that variable among all the other variables that influence decision-making. So the argument really became whether this is really an important variable or not. What I didn't necessarily see in the literature, and maybe because a lot of this focused on economic debates, was the social effect of marriage and what those outcomes might have. And so it's hinted at in papers but the economists I read weren't necessarily interested in that. They were interested in cause and effect or trying to understand the possible outcomes that these programs might have without thinking about a more long-term effect on society.

Convivium: Then we get to the Mike Harris era in Ontario where they actually change the rules defining what constitutes cohabitation time and what would be considered equivalent to marriage. And it has a pretty dramatic effect. It has a pretty dramatic outcome.  What was the significance of that?

Peter Jon Mitchell: I suspect they were really trying to clamp down on abuses in the system. The original rule allowed a person to collect as a single individual even though they might be living up to three years with a partner. And so they recognized there was some sort of economic cooperation going on there even though (the couples) were receiving the benefits as single people. The initial change was that the moment that you cohabit with somebody, you're considered a married partner, and in fact it was after a court case that they revised the rules. And it did have a very dramatic effect. People moved into marriage very quickly from cohabitating relationships though they didn't see any increase in terms of people moving from being single into married relationships.

Convivium: It does seem like the movement that began to gain momentum in that era was beneficial to women and to children, particularly.

Peter Jon Mitchell: It was happening against a background where a larger base of research was gaining an understanding of the benefits of marriage for children, and for adults, as well. This was building up in the background.

Remember when Dan Quayle was running for Vice-President, he made a comment about the TV character Murphy Brown being a single mother, and it was a scandal. Then, 20 years later there was an article in the The Atlantic with the headline “Dan Quayle Was Right!” We had 20 years of research to show that in fact, marriage does do positive things for countries. Maybe the sociological research was catching up with economic questions, as well, and coming into play.                            

Convivium: What had been a discredited political idea was gaining political traction. And that leads to pilot projects on the topic where two different researchers come up with completely different results. What was that about?

Peter Jon Mitchell: So the project was an earning supplement for lone parent families that were able to find employment. Some researchers looked at how this affected family formation. In New Brunswick, we actually saw an increase of those who were in the program in terms of getting married, and an increase in those who were in cohabitating relationships, as well. But in B.C., there was no increase in cohabitation and I think even a decline in marriage. If I remember correctly, there was a reduction in marriage rates. So, the same program, two drastically different results.

And the researchers speculated on a number of conclusions, but the one that they came to is policy and also just local economic conditions may have played a role in the program.

Convivium: Then we come to the work of Emily Hanna. She seems to be much more definitive. She seems to say there is actually demonstrable effect on these policies. That these policies don't just exist in a vacuum; that they can actually move people in positive directions.

Peter Jon Mitchell: Absolutely, yes. And she suggests that perhaps some of the earlier challenges were that we weren't measuring the right policies. That if ... we needed to take a little bit of a different approach and different look. And one of the benefits of Hanna, as well, was that she was using this panel study that allows you to follow people over a certain amount of time, which was always what was lacking in the earlier studies. They couldn't follow people long enough to really see the effect. So she had the advantage of a better data set to be looking at some of these changes, as well.

And, so what happened, her data set covered the time in Ontario we had a drastic policy change. It was a perfect storm to study. It created some interesting results.

Convivium: I think one of the key sentences in your literature review is Emily Hannah’s caution that, "It should not be assumed that policies that encourage marriage are necessarily encouraging dependence, but may, in fact, encourage economic cooperation." What’s important about that caveat?

Peter Jon Mitchell: Hanna's argument is that social assistance should move people off of any dependence. And so, in her mind, if policy moves you towards a marriage relationship then it's creating dependence, particularly women depending on men. So she's clear that, in her understanding of the data, we see movement towards marriage but she doesn't see this creating a new dependency. It is an interesting thought process and a really interesting argument. There is a difference between dependency and cooperation. A stable married relationship provides an opportunity for cooperation, for intimacy, for child rearing, and for all these different aspects of life in a cooperative relationship. It’s a positive, which then allows you to develop other sorts of relational capital and human capital and other elements that are good for wellbeing: good for physical wellbeing and economic wellbeing. And so it's definitely a different way of looking at the social program.

Convivium: It seems very much in line with the direction that Cardus Family has been taking, that this kind of stability is not stultification. It's teaching you how to cooperate with each other, and that has both individual and social benefits.  

Peter Jon Mitchell: It's understanding that marriage is a social institution, that it has a particular function and benefits for its members, for the community, and for wider society. And so, I think it's a positive one when in marriage couples can work together and navigate the challenges of domestic life, economic life, and relational life together. And kind of playing with those tensions and working that out. And that changes in the life course of a relationship but when there's commitment undergirding that that allows you to income share, to pool your income in ways that there's reluctance with cohabiting relationships and that there's a value to that. Having that long term relational planning and commitment.

Convivium: Where does the literature review itself go? Is its function as a stepping stone to this larger product or is it a benefit to groups outside of Cardus? Outside of the next phase of the project?

Peter Jon Mitchell: I think initially the motivation was to further our own project and to understand it, but I think making it available for public record is also helpful for those who were looking into this issue. And I think it's a good summary of the research to date so it could be helpful for others that are thinking about these questions as well.

You know, Canadians don't like to be told how to live their lives, and that's not what the project's about. It is about providing information and education, and I think that's a compassionate motive to say, these two things that we often think of indistinct from one another actually are distinct. And we have research to show that they are distinct and even the economic behaviours are different. This is worth talking about. This is worth considering, and there doesn't seem to be much talk about that right now and we're hoping to elevate the conversation by pieces like this and the work that Cardus Family is doing.


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