Marriage should be welcomed, not penalized, by our safety net system
Government should raise income thresholds for low-income and working-class married couples who receive assistance such as welfare and SNAP benefits.
While politicians, academics and others debate funding programs, increasing criminal penalties, giving tax incentives to corporations to set up in divested neighborhoods — all with the good intention of lowering crime and giving young, poor kids a better chance of making it — the one issue many have avoided addressing is getting lawmakers to reduce marriage penalties in the welfare system.
The welfare system in America has done harm to poor families for decades. From 1935, when Aid to Dependent Children was created, until 1968, many states had a “man-in-the-house” rule that disqualified families with any adult male present in the household.
While welfare no longer explicitly requires a father to be absent, most modern welfare programs count the income of both adults living in the household as if the adults are married or the joint biological parents of children in that household.
Simply put, when two working class adults’ incomes are counted toward welfare eligibility, a family is a lot less likely to receive benefits than if only one adult is counted.
Considering that as of 2019, 19% of the U.S. population (59 million) was receiving welfare, a large segment of our society is impacted.
A single mother could be disqualified from significant benefits if she lives with her child’s biological father.
To get around this, many unmarried couples opt to misrepresent their cohabitation status — often telling welfare officials the male is not the biological father. This allows the mother to keep receiving substantial benefits, but discourages marriage.
It’s an important distinction, because two in three cohabiting couples with children break up by the time their child turns 12, compared to only one-quarter of children with married parents.
By encouraging cohabitation rather than marriage, government policy creates more unstable families — which usually translates into the father leaving.
We know fatherless families can be a recipe for trouble, especially among the poor. The Fatherhood Educational Institute has shared statistics showing 72% of all teenaged murderers grew up without fathers; 60% of rapists were raised in fatherless homes; and 70% of kids now in juvenile corrections facilities grew up in a single-parent environment.
A growing body of evidence shows a high correlation between fatherlessness and violence among young men, especially violence against women.
Many people assume those receiving welfare or similar benefits are unemployed. However, among three-quarters of married-couple families receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps), 84% had at least one worker and 49% had two workers.
More often than not, people receiving benefits work their way off them gradually, and thus should be weaned off them gradually, so as to not face what experts call a “benefits cliff,” which occurs when families suddenly lose a large benefit.
One solution is to model welfare on the tax code. To account for the fact that two parents can both be earners, the tax code increases the threshold at which most earners are taxed at a high rate.
By allowing married couples to file jointly, the tax code attempts to be neutral on marriage, according to the authors of “The Effect of Marriage Pentacles on Economic Mobility, Poverty, and Family Formation.”
State and federal lawmakers should do the same for welfare and related programs like Medicaid, SNAP and child care subsidies. Using the tax code as a general guide, safety net eligibility thresholds should be raised for poor and working-class married couples.
Specifically, the income threshold of married couples receiving government assistance who reside together, both work and have joint children, should be raised 1.4 times compared to a family with only one adult income but with a similar number of children.
Then, once the married family passes a certain income level, it would be wise to have a phase-out period, rather than cutting off a family once they made a dollar more than whatever the income cutoff is and forcing them over a “benefit cliff.”
For example, if the income threshold was initially raised 1.4 times, it could gradually increase to 1.7 times the income level of a single parent as that married couple made more money.
Another idea is to create a work requirement for one spouse and an “hours worked” requirement for the other spouse, where government benefits cover child care only for hours worked by that second spouse.
This would save taxpayer money and allow the second spouse to work part-time, focusing on the child for the remainder of the time.
If implemented, these changes would eliminate the disincentives to work and marriage and would result in more stable families, which is good for everyone.
Jeffery M. Leving is founder and president of the Law Offices of Jeffery M. Leving Ltd. and is an advocate for the rights of fathers.