Traditional marriage is in big trouble in the United States. Between 1960 and 2011, the share of white adults 18 and older who were married declined by 25 percent, while the declines for Hispanic and black adults were 35 percent and 50 percent respectively.
This trend has profoundly negative consequences for adults, children, and society as a whole. Because a stable marriage is one of the best means of avoiding poverty, many children born and/or raised out of wedlock are economically disadvantaged. In addition, single parents tend to have less time, energy, and other resources for fostering their children’s development. And they are more likely to work at low-wage jobs with irregular hours. The negative effects run in both directions: The psychological stress of caring for a child alone can create barriers to professional success.
Some blame the decline in marriage on decaying moral values and loosening social norms abetted by the media. They yearn for a return to what they remember as the moral foundations of marriage. Programs designed to move us in this direction during the administration of George W. Bush had disappointing results.
Others, looking at the same data, see the unfortunate byproduct of a welcome increase in social tolerance and sexual freedom. Still others see the failure to marry as chiefly an economic decision. The decline in male employment and wages has reduced the number of “marriageable males.” Hence proposals to increase the earnings of low- and middle-income workers through expanded job training, a stronger role for labor unions, a higher minimum wage, more career-oriented high schools, and more effective public schooling generally. But translating these proposals, too, into effective programs has proven problematic.
What can be done?
There is one step that can be taken to make marriage more attractive to low- and moderate-income families that seems to be working in other countries with extensive social welfare benefits and high levels of cohabitation: reduce the marriage penalties embedded in our means-tested welfare programs. The growth in these programs has been dramatic: Federal spending on the nine largest means-tested programs (adjusted for inflation) climbed almost 750 percent between 1968 and 2011, while the U.S. population grew by only 56 percent. Ending the marriage penalty in these programs, then, could have far-reaching effects.
Marriage & the welfare state
As far back as 1997, a Congressional Budget Office report noted that a disincentive to marry is created by the potential loss of means-tested benefits received by low-income mothers—food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid. If marriage to an employed man would increase the family income enough to make the mother and children ineligible for these benefits, she might choose to remain unmarried. Gene Steuerle of the Urban Institute notes wryly, “Cohabiting or not getting married has become the tax shelter of the poor.”
Eligibility for the major means-tested benefits is determined by the income of either the “family unit” (individuals living together related by blood, marriage, or adoption) or the “economic unit” (individuals living together who share resources, for example, to purchase food). The family unit is used to calculate eligibility for child-care vouchers, housing-choice vouchers, Medicaid, and, in all but a few states, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). For these programs, the income of a cohabiting adult who is not the children’s biological parent is disregarded. Eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supple-mental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, school meals, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is based on the economic unit.
For cohabiting couples, the incentives are clear: The way to maximize benefits is to avoid getting married or to fail to disclose parental status and financial sharing to authorities.
Measuring marriage penalties
Most safety-net benefits have steep phase-out rates or even “cliffs” as income rises. The recent expansion of safety-net programs to more middle-income households has extended marriage penalties to more Americans. Depending on the state where they live, a family of four making as much as $92,150 may be eligible for Medicaid; a similar family making $71,436 may qualify for child care assistance; a family earning $53,267 may claim the Earned Income Tax Credit; and a family making up to $31,008 may receive SNAP.