Want to Help Reduce Poverty? Stop Penalizing Marriage, New Report Says

If you are in the middle class and receiving food stamps, Medicaid or cash welfare, don’t get married. Not if you want to keep your benefits, that is.

A new study by the American Enterprise Institute offers fresh insight on a glaring flaw in the nation’s federal entitlement programs — a flaw that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been trying to fix for years. The AEI study highlights a “marriage penalty” that gives middle-class couples a financial incentive to avoid marriage in order to continue receiving government benefits.

“For several decades now, policymakers have created programs with little if any attention to the sometimes-severe marriage penalties that they inadvertently impose,” Ryan notes in “A Better Way,” the House Republican caucus’s new policy platform. “So instead of rewarding people trying to create a stable family, our safety net actually discourages them.”

And here’s the rub: numerous other studies have shown clear financial and socio-economic advantages to marriage. These include higher lifelong income, lower rates of teenage pregnancy and child delinquency and higher upward mobility for children in lower income families, just to name a few.

This has created a Catch-22 for low-income or middle-class couples thinking of marriage, according to Bradford Wilcox, one of the authors of the AEI report.

“Instead of rewarding people trying to create a stable family, our safety net actually discourages them”
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Wilcox explained how nearly half of all U.S. families receive some kind of means-tests government assistance, from Medicaid to food stamps. But for couples earning a combined income between $24,000 and $79,000 — which is to say, the average American family — these benefits end with marriage.

The disincentive has real-life consequences. Almost one third of all adult Americans report that they personally know someone who has not married for fear of losing government benefits, according to a 2014 study.

What we have, then, is a vicious cycle: Marriage rates have decreased due to couples’ fears of losing benefits, which leads to slower economic growth among America’s lower and middle classes, given that “the retreat from marriage is a major factor contributing to the economic inequality in the United States,” according to the Washington Post. Slower economic growth leads to more reliance on government benefits, which leads to a further retreat from marriage…and on and on it goes.

This raises a simple question: has the retreat from marriage been a major factor in the rise of America’s welfare state?

“When you raise this kind of question among my progressive colleagues and the folks that I engage with on twitter, you tend to get a fairly negative response oftentimes,” Wilcox said. “But the problem with that kind of response, the idea that there’s really no connection between welfare theoretically and how people approach child bearing marriage, is that it doesn’t actually comport with the data on this question.”

Instead, the data confirms what Ryan and others have long understood.

It may not be what the young bachelors in their early 20s want to hear, but getting married is important. What we need now, according to Ryan and the authors of the study, is to stop penalizing Americans for doing so.