New study: social welfare programs encourage low-income Americans not to marry

Does government provide incentives for people to get married?
Does government provide incentives for people to NOT get married?

I don’t think anyone disagrees that it’s good for society if the next generation of young workers are raised in a home where their mothers and fathers are present in a stable, loving married home. And so, you would expect that no one would ever pay people money to not get married, and/or take away money from people who do get married. After all, if marriage is a good thing, why use money to discourage people from doing it?

Well, take a look at this article in the Wall Street Journal.

It says:

When it comes to marriage, the U.S. tax code is roughly neutral: The number of people penalized for being married is roughly the same as the number who benefit from it.

The same is not true for social welfare programs, such as Medicaid, food stamps or housing assistance, which can impose significant financial penalties on recipients who are married, according to new research from the R Street Institute, a Washington think tank.

In some cases, that creates major disincentives for low-income couples—especially those who are already living together—to tie the knot.

“Historically, low-income couples have faced especially onerous marriage penalties, because most safety-net benefits are means-tested (with steep phase-out rates or even cliffs)” applied on those who are married, researchers Douglas J. Besharov and Neil Gilbert wrote. “Marriage could easily reduce or end the benefits of a single parent with children.”

The effects vary from state to state, and depend on the relationship between the couple living together, whether or not they have children, whether they share expenses and how much money they earn.

In Arkansas, the state with the highest marriage penalties, if a nonparent marries a parent with two children and each adult earns $20,000, they would lose approximately $13,248 in benefits, or roughly a third of their total household income, according to the study.

The effects also vary by program. In a paper released Tuesday, researchers at the Urban Institute found the additional-child tax credit and the earned-income tax credit had the largest effect on creating either marriage penalties or bonuses, depending on the state and how the earnings were divided among the couple.

The penalties have become a growing issue in recent years as the size and coverage of means-tested welfare programs has swelled, and now includes more middle-income households. At the same time the stigma associated with living together out of wedlock has shrunk, leading to declining marriage rates.

The study’s authors claim:

“The supposition that marriage penalties have an impact on decisions to marry gains credence from the simple fact that marriage rates are highest among higher-income groups that are less affected by them and for whom such penalties represent a smaller proportion of total income,” they wrote.

I think we want to guard against the situation where we are transferring money from people who do the right thing and get married to people who do the wrong thing and have children before they get married. It’s not good for anyone that single mothers do this. It’s not good for the children of single mothers, it’s not good for the single mothers, and it’s not good for the taxpayers who have to pay for these welfare programs. It’s not a good thing when a politician is generous at spending other people’s money.

Like it or not, taxes and welfare payments do communicate incentives to people… incentives that affect their decision-making. If we really care about kids getting the best environment to grow up in, then we ought to care that government does not tell people to not get married by how they tax and spend.

You can read this paper by Dr. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation to see why marriage is so good for children, when compared to a single mom on welfare.

2 thoughts on “New study: social welfare programs encourage low-income Americans not to marry”

  1. The welfare state makes it so that those who should have kids forgo having children in order to subsidize those who shouldn’t have kids but are because someone else is being forced to pay for it.

    1. You are exactly right.

      The result (and maybe the purpose!) is the weakening of the family unit and creating more dependence on the government.

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