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Government Assistance And Divorce: What's The Connection?

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It probably comes as no surprise that money troubles often lead to marital strife. But could receiving government assistance such as food stamps, Medicaid or welfare do further harm to your marriage?

The answer is yes--and in a big way, according to Dr. David Schramm, a researcher and professor at the University of Missouri.

In a study released earlier this month, Dr. Schramm found that, among couples in the same income bracket, those receiving government assistance experience lower rates of positive bonding, commitment to their spouses and overall satisfaction in their marriages. They are also more prone to divorce, negative interaction and feeling trapped in their marriages.

Dr. Schramm, a relationship and marriage education expert, surveyed 295 couples, 64 of whom were receiving some form of government assistance. He found that couples earning $20,000 or less--and receiving some form of government assistance above and beyond that--reported significantly lower rates of marital satisfaction than those earning the same amount but receiving no state support.

With jobless rates high, more families are relying on state aid. What does that mean for their marriages? We spoke with Dr. Schramm to find out.

What are the implications of your study?

We have to take a closer look at what the effect of government assistance is, and how it may affect people’s attitudes and make them feel inferior: “Now I can’t provide. I can’t be the provider because I’m out of work, or looking for work, and now we have to rely on government assistance.” There may be a stigma associated with receiving welfare assistance, so I think we need to do a better job of looking at what government assistance does to individuals’ sense of self and well-being.

For married people, I think that regardless of income, regardless of government assistance, I think the implications are that relationships take work, that all relationships will experience stressors, whether they are economic or otherwise. There are very, very happy marriages that we know of where people make hardly any money, and there are very unhappy marriages with people who make a lot of money. So income doesn’t need to be a determinant of relationship satisfaction. All relationships, regardless of income, take time, and effort and putting the other first.

What surprised you most about your findings?

[What surprised me most] was that people could be making the same amount, $20,000 or less, and yet one group happened to differ. There was such a big difference [in terms of marital quality] between those who are receiving government assistance and those who are not.

What are some possible explanations for your findings?

I have some plausible explanations: One, I think, and the research supports this, is that work brings satisfaction and accomplishment. And perhaps government assistance, for some men, may make them feel inferior, which may influence their level of stress.

There’s some research that shows that welfare participation compromises family values, it somehow biases the values and attitudes of those receiving it against marriage. Another explanation may be that there’s some other factors that we haven’t tapped into: There may be some mental health factors, the person may be disabled in some way, or there’s drug abuse. So there may be some other possible explanations ... This is not causal, this is simply correlation and not causation.

In your report, you suggest that mental illness and addiction are sometimes characteristics of those receiving government assistance, and that those qualities may contribute to lower marital quality. If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that mental illness and addiction negatively affect marital quality, rather than the receipt of government assistance?

There is some research that shows the effect of mental illness and substance abuse, even disabilities—depression, anxiety, those types of factors—they do have a direct effect on relationship quality … [And yet] we have no reason to think that those that received $20,000 didn’t also experience some health challenges. The question that we can’t answer from this is, what are the other differences? There’s got to be some other differences between those two groups of people receiving less than $20,000, other than one is simply receiving government assistance.

There’s still something that we haven’t uncovered yet.

What can be done to improve marital quality for couples receiving government assistance?

[Right now I'm working on a project] to develop a curriculum to train social workers and child welfare workers—those who work with this type of an audience—to give them the tools, relationship tools, to go in and help the individuals, the couples, who are low-resource and likely receiving government assistance.

We’re doing workshops with social workers, I’m teaching a graduate class [at the University of Missouri] this semester with social work students, to give them the tools to help individuals and couples who want to have a healthy relationship to have one.

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