How Do Universal Benefits Discourage Marriage?

I've been banging the drum for universal child benefits recently in light of the fact that all tax-based child benefit regimes penalize large, traditional, and poor families (I, II). Under such a regime, parents would receive a flat dollar amount each month (say $300) per child. An interesting response I've seen (from Winship, Wilcox, and others) is that this would incentivize single parenting or discourage marriage (which one presumes is two ways of expressing the same thing). I find this interesting because one of the seeming charms of the universal benefit is that it specifically does not do this. So what's going on in the minds of people who say otherwise?

It Does Not Discourage Marriage

Before answering that question, it's helpful to rehash the rationale for why universal child benefits do not discourage marriage. The basic point here is that, because you receive the benefit regardless of whether you are married, the benefit should not provide any incentive one way or another.

Normally, when people complain about benefits affecting marriage, they are referencing benefits that go away when you get married or benefits that are affected by spouses combining finances. Because such benefits are negatively affected by entering into a marriage, a person is forced to choose between receiving the benefits or being married. Thus, the argument goes, at least some people will not be willing to give up the benefits and therefore the benefits will cause less marriage. Although empirically questionable, the argument is pretty understandable.

But this normal argument is not relevant where, as in the case of universal child benefits, the benefit is not negatively affected by getting married. No person is ever put in a situation where they have to choose between keeping the benefits and getting married. Thus, it is normally concluded, such benefits should not affect marital decisions one way or another.

Why Would You Think It Does?

Since the normal incentive argument doesn't apply, it's clear that people have something else in mind. Put bluntly: pundits who raise this concern are saying that things that increase the income of women disincentivize marriage because it reduces the economic coercion that might otherwise force them to wed.

So this critique imagines a woman with a baby on the way who is thinking about getting married to a guy, but is pretty reluctant to do so (let's say because he's verbally abusive). Despite her reservations, she decides she needs to go ahead with it because, if she doesn't, the financial burden would be immense given her personal income. That is, she decides to undergo the risk of abuse in order reduce the risk of economic deprivation. But then she learns of the universal child benefit program and her calculation changes. Because she is insured against severe deprivation, she now decides that she won't marry the man. The risk of abuse is no longer worth the economic benefits because she has this other modest source of income.

What's interesting about this argument is that it equally applies to all sources of income. Providing a woman education and training and job advancement skills that increase her market income by $3,600 per year is no different, in the context of this argument, than providing a benefit that increases her transfer income by $3,600 per year. In both cases, the woman's improved personal financial situation reduces the likelihood of deprivation and therefore changes her calculation over whether to marry someone with certain negative characteristics (verbally abusive tendencies in the example here).

The upshot of this anti-benefit argument is thus quite troubling. It implicitly says that we should organize our institutions so as to put economic guns to the heads of women in order to get them to marry people that they wouldn't marry absent the fear of poverty. Even if this would work (which I doubt), a marriage that would not be entered into except to avoid hunger and financial insecurity is probably not a good one. If you want to promote marriage, coercing them in such a manner is not the way to do so as it will cause some extremely negative consequences.


It deserves pointing out that some marriage formation trends seem to suggest the opposite conclusion in all of this. Women who have high incomes and therefore no real financial need to marry are much more likely to do so than with lower incomes where you'd think the financial need is more serious. If you believe certain ethnographic studies, this is partly because marriage in the lower economic strata is not as financially advantageous as simple averages suggest: taking on a low-income spouse with precarious employment is extremely risky in ways income averages don't capture. Put more bluntly: marriage itself is financially risky for some economic groups because it involves taking on another mouth to feed without much certainty about that person's future income.

Under that analysis, a child benefit, by providing guaranteed income streams, may actually smooth out financial risk and thereby make people more likely to undertake the risks of marriage.