The Political Science of Family Fragmentation

The interface between political science and family law and policy offers the opportunity to consider how government family support interacts with the occurrence of family fragmentation. We presented this research at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference last weekend in Chicago. 

            The current dramatic rise in government support for fragmented families over the last several years allowed us to introduce a statistical study of human behavior within families as an aspect of politics. This research was more controversial than expected, as the participants and attendants to our panel were not pleased to learn the facts regarding the costs of family fragmentation. Observing the political aspects of individual or family behavior in the context of government support identified patterns of family breakdown and a lack of family formation.  It is understandable that some might take these descriptive generalizations personally, rather than appreciate a full discussion of these facts as a political hypothesis.

            This research was originally published by Lynne Marie Kohm and Rachel K. Toberty in the Regent University Law Review, and is entitled, A 50 State Survey of the Cost of Family Fragmentation, 25 Regent U. L. Rev. 25 (2012)(detailing that statistical analysis on a state by state basis).  The article is also available at the Social Science Research Network at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2205349.

            Though the family welfare system in the United States is designed to bridge expense gaps created by family fragmentation, this process of support tends to result in increased reliance on state funds by broken families. Now firmly established as a regular part of states’ budgets, observing these trends reveals that federal and state resources offered to assist fragmented families restrict those recipients and their children by the very benefits designed to assist them. (See e.g. Derek Neal, The Economics of Family Structure, copyright 2001, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, SSRN Working Paper 8519, (October 2001), http://www.nber.org/papers/w8519 (discussing marriage rate theories, existing literature, and a developed economic theorem that describes the recent demographic phenomenon of never-married mothers).)  

            The small otherwise bankrupt town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island provides an example of how this phenomenon occurs.  Woonsocket has a local economy based solely and completely on government support.  A third of its residents use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which was formerly known as food stamps.  At precisely midnight on the first of every month Woonsocket experiences its monthly financial windfall of nearly two million dollars, deposited on residents’ Electronic Banking Transfer cards (EBTs), which then flows to grocery stores and sundry establishments throughout the town, operating its local economy for the next 20-30 days.  According to the Washington Post in an article by Eli Saslow entitled Monthly Boom and Bust Cycle dated March 16, 2013, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/food-stamps-put-rhode-island-town-on-monthly-boom-and-bust-%20%20cycle/2013/03/16/08ace07c-8ce1-11e2-b63f-f53fb9f2fcb4_story.html, “a federal program that began as a last resort for a few million hungry people has grown into an economic lifeline for entire towns.” Woonsocket is not alone, but many residents in many towns and cities across the United States live off government support like SNAP, which is directly loaded onto individual EBT cards and used at will by average Americans.  In fact, EBT has been accepted for some time at local bars, strip clubs, and other establishments unrelated to general health and welfare. See Welfare Recipients Take Out Cash at Strip Clubs,FoxNews.com, Jan. 1, 2006, also available at http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/01/06/welfare-recipients-take-out-cash-at-strip-clubs-liquor-stores/?test=latestnews.

            According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), one in seven U.S. residents received SNAP (food stamps) in 2011. At the end of 2012 one in four residents were relying on SNAP. Government support makes up one third of U.S. wages. Government resources support nearly 40 million people.  This support is observable in broken households or never formed families, and according to family law scholar Stephanie Coontz is creating “a nation of welfare families.” For an examination of how the federal benefits work with state implementation, see Gina Adams, Pamela A. Holcomb, Kathleen Snyder, Robin Koralek, and Jeffrey Capizzano, Child Care Subsidies for TANF Families: The Nexus of Systems and Policies, at Urban.org (Apr. 10, 2006), also available athttp://www.urban.org/publications/311305.html.

            These programs are designed to provide assistance for families.  Operatively, however, they have worked to trap those families in government dependence, and near poverty.  Government reliance inadvertently tends to create a cycle of poverty embedded in family fragmentation as it serves as a disincentive to become part of an intact and stable family.  “Experts estimate that for most couples receiving public assistance, getting married will reduce their benefits by 10% to 20% of their total income.”  See Eve Tushnet, “A Choice Between Feeding Your Children or Getting Married,” First Things, Feb. 27, 2013, at http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/02/27/a-choice....   Thus, government welfare is creating further family fragmentation, and greater dysfunctional reliance, albeit unintentionally.

            On the other hand, strong families are part of the fabric of a healthy and strong society. Intact families are generally not in need of support as economic resources of the united family members are used to support the family.  Family restoration is the best solution to these concerns.  When families are strong, society is strongest, and stabilized; the outcome is that communities and families do not require government intervention. Strong families cost government less.

            Interactions between political science and family law and policy reveal how government family support fosters and perpetuates the occurrence of family fragmentation. The current dramatic rise in government support for fragmented families over the last several years demonstrates clearly that human behavior within families is a critical aspect of politics.  Curbing family reliance on government through marriage and family restoration, however, would serve to increase family stability.

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