urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Five Questions for Robert Lerman

FiveQuestionsRobert Lerman, the Urban Institute's first senior fellow in labor and social policy, is a leading expert on how education, employment, and family structure can work together to improve economic well-being. His research also delves into the interactions between job and marital stability, the effects of marriage-promotion programs, and youth transitions from school to career.

Dr. Lerman contributes to "The Opportunity Agenda," new UI research dealing with the current status of asset holdings and with policies to promote asset building among low- and moderate-income families. This research was featured at a First Tuesday forum in March on Opportunity, Assets, and Ownership: An Evolving Policy Agenda.


Five Questions Archives


1. What are the most promising new initiatives for helping low-income families?

First, we are learning better how to combine work and work supports. Now that many low-income families are in the workforce and not just on welfare, we're seeing how to use unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other mainstream programs to supplement family earnings.

Second, we're expanding our research and policy goals to incorporate asset building and ownership. We're trying new ways to encourage homeownership, private pension, and other mainstream approaches that help people become financially independent over time.

Third, we're trying to directly influence family stability and the health of couples. Marriage and family stability are crucial because chronic poverty among single parents is something like ten times the chronic poverty rates of married couples with children. And short-term poverty is much higher for single-parent families as well.

Researchers have long known that marriage is a major issue in poverty and, until recently, we've been using only financial incentives. Now we're looking at direct policy initiatives to train couples. Marriage limits material hardship, even in less-educated and low-income families. If more parents were married, remained married, and remained in healthy marriages through government initiatives, poverty could be lowered.

2. How can asset building and ownership help low-income families?

Asset-based programs raise aspirations and allow people to see hard work and increased earnings as a way to achieve such goals as owning a home. Since the 1930s, social policy has mostly sought to maintain an income floor by a variety of approaches. That helps prevent poverty, but it doesn't move people into the next phase or level. Income support doesn't bring them a middle-class lifestyle, and it doesn't make them financially secure. Furthermore, many income-based programs discourage building assets.

As the nation grows richer, do we want to devote so many resources just to providing a minimum income? Instead, we need to move as many people into the middle class as possible by raising people's aspirations and helping them see how they can move from financial insecurity to the point where they enjoy greater financial security and hold some assets for the future. Some of this will entail improved financial education. Many programs currently teach people about finances, but the record of these initiatives is uneven. Asset building is a very promising field because it aims to help people achieve higher goals than mere subsistence.

3. What can government do directly to deal with marriage and family stability?

The government is embarking now on programs to train low-income couples interested in marriage to build better relationships and to recognize that a marriage commitment leads to a long-term perspective on how you're going to run your life. That includes parenting, improving occupational skills, and many other factors.

We don't know whether these direct programs to teach these skills and to mentor couples will work. But the Department of Health and Human Services is funding tests of various approaches to see whether programs that have been promising for middle-income couples can also work for low-income couples. As part of the reauthorization of welfare laws, the administration has proposed spending substantial sums to promote healthy marriages through demonstrations and research projects paid for with state and federal funds.

Marriage training could be a very cost-effective way to reduce poverty and to increase well-being. By my calculations, if one more out of every 20 couples we trained had a healthy marriage, the savings would pay for the program. Sometimes we emphasize money alone. But we're increasingly learning to ask questions about how happy people feel. What we find is that marriage by itself, and a healthy marriage more so, hugely affects happiness and feelings of well-being.

One important target of the marriage initiative is low-income couples that have just had a child. Over half these expecting couples are living together. When asked about marriage, not only would they like to get married, but they expect to get married. But over time relatively few do. That might change if instruction and services could be provided at a critical moment around the time of the birth. With that boost, many of these couples could be helped and some of them would go on to have healthy marriages.

4. Are the low earnings and employment of minority and less-educated men a road block to marriage?

Certainly that's part of the problem. What we're finding in our research is that marriage actually increases the earnings of even low educated and minority men. Some research I'm now doing shows that being married adds as much to the earnings of men as a year and a half to two years of schooling does.

Men who have low earnings may tend not to marry. But it is also true that marriage tends to raise the earnings, even of less educated men. So the causation goes in both directions. If we can intervene to encourage men to see marriage as an important goal, it's very likely that marriage is going to increase their earnings as well.

5. Are there other policies that could help improve a worker's capacity to support a family?

Yes. I believe that we are missing out in an important way to help less-educated workers. That is to improve our apprenticeship system-to combine schooling and work more creatively and more rigorously and to expose people to a variety of career options when they are young. Also, a lot more training should take place at work sites. People could acquire strong work-based skills on the job with natural adult mentors at their side. And they would put what they learn in school to better use in a long-term career. For starters, the many apprenticeship programs already underway in the country need to be made more accessible to the most at-risk populations.