In 1994, Minnesota began to test a major welfare reform initiative that emphasized financial incentives for work, a participation requirement for long-term recipients, and the simplification of rules and procedures for receiving public assistance. This program, called the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), was initially implemented in seven counties. MDRC conducted an in-depth evaluation of MFIP's effectiveness and impact on various populations served, using a random assignment design that placed over 14,000 families in either the MFIP or the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) system. The evaluation has produced findings on participants' employment, earnings, welfare receipt, income, and other measures of children's and parents' outcomes over a three-year follow-up period for single- and two-parent families.(1) One of the striking findings of this evaluation was that a survey sample of two-parent recipient families assigned to MFIP were 19.1 percentage points, or 40 percent, more likely to be married at the three-year follow-up point than two-parent recipient families assigned to AFDC. The three-year follow-up evaluation left open a number of important questions: Did these increases in marital stability represent short-term delays in separation and divorce, or did they point to lasting effects? What were the effects on marital stability and divorce among subgroups of two-parent families, especially among those who were cohabiting versus those who were married at study entry? The specific implications of these findings for families and children depend on the answers to these questions.
Under subcontract to The Lewin Group, MDRC received funding from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to examine the effects on divorce and marriage outcomes over a seven-year follow-up period for the full sample of two-parent families who were part of the MFIP pilot study. Data for the analyses come from publicly available divorce and marriage certificate records.
Two-parent recipient families are defined as families who were receiving or re-applying for welfare, and were either married, or living together with a shared biological child, when they entered the MFIP study. Among two-parent recipient families:
- MFIP decreased divorce by 3.5 percentage points, or by about 25 percent, seven years after study entry. Effects on divorce primarily occurred late in the follow-up period, even after June 1998, when the MFIP pilot study ended and a statewide MFIP program was implemented.
- For two-parent recipients who were married at study entry, MFIP increased marital stability by decreasing divorce.
- Among cohabiting couples coupled parents who shared a biological child at study entry the cumulative rate of ever marrying during the seven-year follow-up period was similar for the MFIP and AFDC (control) groups.
- However, MFIP cohabiting couples were 66 percent less likely than AFDC cohabiting couples to get divorced during the follow-up period. Thus, the proportion of cohabiting couples that were married at the end of the follow-up was higher among MFIP families than among AFDC families.
- MFIP's effects on marital stability were most pronounced among black recipient families, reducing rates of divorce among black married couples by over 70 percent. Effects on marital stability did not vary by family size, prior marital status, prior employment history, or prior welfare history of the family.
Two-parent applicants are defined as two-parent families who were newly applying for welfare at the time they entered the MFIP study. Among two-parent applicant families:
- Within the AFDC (control) group, two-parent applicant families were more likely to divorce, and less likely to marry, than two-parent recipient families. Over the seven-year follow-up period, rates of divorce across two-parent applicant families in the control group, at about 19 percent, were five percentage points higher than rates of divorce among recipient families. Among cohabiters, rates of marriage for applicant couples in the control group, at 17 percent, were four percentage points lower than rates of marriage among recipient couples.
- MFIP had no cumulative effect on divorce among two-parent applicant families, but did somewhat increase divorce late in the follow-up period.
In the original MFIP evaluation, the effects of the program on marital stability were measured for 290 two-parent recipient families who were respondents to a 36-month follow-up survey. The new analysis presented here has expanded on these findings by providing long-term follow-up for the full sample of 1,515 two-parent recipient families and 731 two-parent applicant families who participated in the evaluation. Overall, the results indicate that the pilot MFIP program that began in 1994 continued to have effects on rates of divorce for two-parent families seven years after they entered the study. Reductions in divorce were concentrated among families who were already receiving welfare when they entered the study rather than new welfare applicants. Impacts were most pronounced for black parents who were already married at the time they entered the study, and for parents who were cohabiting when they entered the study.
Note that because this new analysis relies solely on public records of marriages and finalized divorces, it does not capture any effects that the program may have had on couples' likelihood of separating or living apart without formally divorcing. Nevertheless, these findings represent some of the best evidence to date about the potential for welfare policies to affect marital stability among two-parent families.
The results raise several important questions for future work. First, because most welfare reform evaluations in the 1990s did not collect information on two-parent families, there is little impact information available for two-parent families, making it important to replicate this type of evaluation in some additional geographic areas to determine whether these findings are generalizable beyond Minnesota. Second, to further understand the results presented here, future work will examine how MFIP affected the timing of marriages or divorces, particularly for cohabiting parents. In addition, the suggestion of some increase in divorce in some years, among applicant families, is worthy of further investigation.
Finally, the effects on divorce among MFIP's two-parent recipient families suggest that the program could have had important effects on the well-being of children in these families. With funding from various foundations, via administrative records (including child welfare records), MDRC is continuing to conduct long-term analyses on the effects of the pilot MFIP program on economic, family, and child outcomes among single parent and two-parent families, with the expectation that additional findings will be available in 2004.