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How social-welfare policy is affecting family formation

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In America, the most effective “anti-poverty program” is the institution of work (more specifically, ensuring people have a full-time job). The second most effective program for preventing people from being poor is the institution of marriage.

The poverty rate among married couples in America is around 6 percent, and among married couples who both have full-time jobs the poverty rate is practically zero (0.001 percent). In contrast, the poverty rate among single-dads/moms is much higher: 25 percent for single dads / 31 percent for single moms.

Unfortunately, government-based anti-poverty programs tend to conflict with or discourage the benefits of work and marriage. In his 1984 book Losing Ground, Charles Murray reported that the expansion of federal and state support for poor families during the 1960s-era War on Poverty ended up penalizing marriage. The reason is that government aid is often “means-tested” — recipients can only receive the aid if they do not possess the means to do without that help.

While this may seem like a commonsensical approach, it can have detrimental unintended consequences. For example, a single-mother may be receiving $15,000 in aid from the government and wish to marry a man who is earning $15,000. Before walking down the aisle, though, she learns that her potential husband’s income would put her over the means-tested threshold and she would lose all government aid. She would be better off, financially speaking, by merely “shacking up” with the man and not getting married at all. This is often known as a “marriage penalty,” where it makes more financial sense for a couple to cohabit rather than to marry. And it has been a public policy problem for almost fifty years. A new report by AEI and the Institute for Family Studies, however, shows that the unintended consequences are beginning to change in unexpected ways.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, social-welfare programs may have been most consequential for family formation among the poorest couples, largely because they were the ones most likely to participate in such programs,” notes the report. “Today, however, the design of social-welfare policy may have the most influence on couples in the lower middle class.”

The report’s analysis of American couples whose oldest child is two years or younger indicates that 82 percent of those in the second and third quintiles of family income ($24,000 to $79,000) face this kind of marriage penalty when it comes to Medicaid, cash welfare, or food stamps. By contrast, only 66 percent of their counterparts in the bottom quintile (less than $24,000) face such a penalty.

Additionally, they found that almost one-third of Americans aged 18 to 60 report that they personally know someone who has not married for fear of losing means-tested benefits. The report offers four strategies for addressing the marriage penalties embedded within social-welfare policies:

1– In determining eligibility for Medicaid and food stamps, increase the income threshold for married couples with children under five to twice what it is for a single parent with children under five. Such a move would ensure that couples just starting a family do not feel pressured to forgo marriage just to access medical care and food for their families. The cost of this policy change would be limited, since it would only affect families with young children.

2– Offer an annual, refundable tax credit to married couples with children under five that would compensate them for any loss in means-tested benefits associated with marrying, up to $1000. This would send a clear signal that the government does not wish to devalue marriage and, for couples, it would help to offset any penalties associated with tying the knot.

3– Work with states to run local experiments designed to eliminate the marriage penalty associated with means-tested policies. States could receive waivers to test a range of strategies to eliminate penalties in certain communities, and to communicate to the public that the penalties are no longer in force there. Successful experiments could then be scaled up to the national level in future efforts to reform means-tested policies.

4– Encourage states and caseworkers working with lower-income families to treat two-parent families in much the same way as they do single-parent families. For instance, states could ease the distinctive work requirements that many have in place for two-parent families receiving cash welfare. Reforms such as this one would put two-parent and single-parent families on a more equal footing when it comes to public assistance. More generally, policymakers and caseworkers should try to eliminate policies and practices that effectively discriminate in favor of single-parent families.

The effect of government aid programs is mixed — and costly. Since the beginning of the war on poverty until 2012, local, state, and federal spending on welfare programs has totaled 15,000,000,000,000. Currently, the United States spends nearly $1 trillion every year to fight poverty, an amount equal to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.

Despite their relative ineffectiveness in alleviating poverty, the programs aren’t going away anytime soon. Today, more than four in ten families in America receive some kind of means-tested government assistance, from Medicaid to food stamps. Instead of complaining about social-welfare policy, though, Christians in America should be encouraging reforms that eliminate marriage penalties. In helping to alleviate poverty we need to make sure we aren’t unintentionally hurting the formation of American families.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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