Wedding Bell Blues: Marriage and Welfare Reform

When Congress passed historic welfare reform legislation in 1996, it had three goals: replacing welfare with work, decreasing the number of children born out of wedlock, and promoting marriage. Progress toward the first goal has been impressive. Caseloads have dropped dramatically as millions of previously welfare-dependent heads of households have entered the paid labor force.

But what about the other two goals? How much progress has been made in reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing and promoting stable two-parent, married households? The honest answer is: not much. U.S. marriage rates generally continue to decline as both age-at-first-marriage and cohabitation outside of marriage continue to increase. The number of children born out of wedlock increased from 1.26 million in 1996 to 1.3 million in 1999. The share of live births that are out of wedlock grew too, from 32.4 percent in 1996 to 33 percent in 1999.

Marriage: A Social Good under Attack

Although some observers question the propriety of promoting marriage, countless studies demonstrate that children, on average, fare better in continuously married households than in any other family structure. Married adults, women as well as men, are happier, healthier, and wealthier than their unmarried counterparts. And communities with higher marriage rates evidence fewer social pathologies, including crime, educational failure, and poverty, than do those with lower marriage rates. Congress got it right when it said that one goal of welfare reform ought to be to promote marriage.

That does not mean that some marriages aren’t awful for both children and adults. Domestic violence and child abuse, unfortunately, are not strangers to married households. In such cases, children and adults are better off if the marriage dissolvesthan if it stays together. Still, domestic violence and child abuse are less likely in married than nonmarried households. Marriage may not confer absolute protection against these social ills, but it offers better protection than any other family arrangement.

Why has such a demonstrable personal and social good become so weak? First, the past 40 years have seen an extraordinary shift in cultural norms concerning sex, marriage, and childbearing. The advent of effective birth control in the 1960s separated sex from marriage. The entry of more and more women into the paid labor force made childbearing outside of wedlock more economically feasible. And the increasing acceptability of cohabitation outside of wedlock separated living together from marriage as well. As a result, there is simply less social pressure today to get and stay married than there was just two generations ago.

Second, when couples do get married, public policy frequently punishes them economically. The U.S. tax code, for example, contains a marriage penalty for high-earner, two-income couples. And the earned income tax credit penalizes lower-wage married couples. Moreover, welfare rules have frequently made it harder for married households than for single-parent households to get benefits. Although few couples sit down and calculate the possible economic effects of getting married, there is a sense, especially within low-income communities, that getting married means you lose “stuff.” Couples may not be able to calculate exactly how much “stuff” they stand to lose, but they know marriage, at least financially, is a bad deal.

And they are right. According to calculations by Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, a single mother working full-time at a minimum-wage job who marries a man working full-time at $8 an hour stands to lose $8,060 in cash and noncash welfare benefits. Under such circumstances, the wonder is not that few low-income couples marry, but that any do.

What Have States Tried?

Why haven’t states made more progress in encouraging marriage as one way to reduce welfare dependency? The answer is that no state has yet made a serious effort. The lesson: when it comes to promoting marriage, doing nothing doesn’t seem to work.

To be fair, most states have dismantled at least some of the anti-marriage policies in the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Most, for example, have removed the 100-hour rule that made low-income married couples, but not single-parent households, ineligible for welfare if one adult in the household worked more than 100 hours the previous month, even if the earnings were not enough to lift the family out of poverty. Many states also have eliminated the AFDC rule requiring married households, but not single parents, to wait 30 days after the principal wage earner lost work before receiving benefits.

Certainly removing these anti-marriage policies helps. But without doing away with means-testing altogether, it is virtually impossible to remove all the financial disincentives to marriage inherent in welfare. Moreover, eliminating disincentives is not the same thing as promoting marriage. And thus far no state has made any serious effort to promote marriage among welfare recipients. Indeed, most states hesitate even to mention the “M” word.

State officials explain their reluctance by saying that not much is known about how to promote marriage, especially in low-income or welfare-dependent families. On this score, they are largely correct. Absent sound research, many states have simply avoided trying.

Officials also cite confusion as to whether the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program requires states to promote marriage. Although one clearly stated purpose of TANF is “to end dependency of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage” [italics added], the law also urges states to “encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.” But does “two-parent families” mean married families or simply families with two involved parents, whether or not they are married or even living together?

This lack of clarity has allowed states to skirt the issue of marriage. In fact, late in 1999 the Clinton administration issued A Guide on Funding for Children and Families through the TANF program. The guide broadly interpreted two-parent families to mean not only married families, but also unmarried, separated, and divorced parents, whether living together or not. As a result, states can say they are fulfilling the purposes of TANF by, for example, encouraging visits by noncustodial parents.

This state of affairs may be changing. A recently released evaluation of a welfare reform effort in Minnesota suggests we may know a little something about promoting marriage through welfare policy after all. The Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) was designed primarily to encourage work, and on that score, it did pretty well?substantially increasing employment and earnings among families previously dependent on welfare relative to a control group on a more traditional welfare program. But MFIP did more than promote work. It also changed incentives so that low-income married couples no longer were penalized financially for getting or staying married. In addition to eliminating the 100-hour rule, MFIP also allowed married couples to earn more money than they could under AFDC before starting to lose benefits?a change that MFIP planners hoped would discourage low-income married couples from divorcing to maintain welfare benefits as family income rose.

The results, if not definitive, are encouraging. MFIP participants who were married when the program got under way were 38 percent more likely to be married three years later than those randomly assigned to the traditional AFDC program (67 percent of MFIP participants, as against 48 percent of the AFDC participants, stayed married). And MFIP participants who began as single parents were more likely to be married three years later than those in the traditional program (11 percent as against 7 percent).

It should be noted that MFIP’s success both in reducing divorce and in increasing marital formation was limited to long-term welfare recipients and did not extend to new applicants. And its effect on increasing marital formation, though statistically significant, was rather small.

Still, the MFIP results suggest that changing welfare incentives can increase the likelihood that low-income parents will get or stay married. That these effects were limited suggests that more must be done to increase marital formation among welfare recipients than simply removing financial disincentives.

The Next Steps

Several states have announced plans to do just that. Arizona’s state legislature recently established a Marriage and Communication Skills Commission to encourage community-based organizations to train married couples and couples contemplating marriage in communication and relationship skills. It also appropriated $2.9 million from the TANF block grant for a variety of services to needy families, including $75,000 for vouchers to enable married or cohabiting parents whose income is less than 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines to attend a marriage skills training course, $1 million for community-based marriage and communication skills programs, and $75,000 to develop, produce, and print a marriage handbook.

Louisiana’s legislature recently asked the governor to establish a Council on Marriage to “monitor, develop, and evaluate policy, programs, curricula, publicity, and delivery of services to families to assure that government does not undermine or discourage the institution of marriage.” If established, the council also will help the Department of Social Services and the Department of Health and Hospitals coordinate efforts to “promote two-parent families anchored in marriage for the rearing of children.”

In perhaps the most ambitious statewide, pro-marriage effort, Governor Frank Keating plans to launch a TANF-funded $10 million initiative to reduce Oklahoma’s divorce rate by one-third by 2010. A steering committee with representatives from religion, education, business, government, legal service providers, and the media will lead the initiative.

Proposed activities include training and educating caseworkers and public health nurses within state agencies to promote marriage, creating a media campaign to highlight marriage-building skills, establishing a Marriage Scholar-in-Residence at an Oklahoma university, evaluating programs within state agencies to implement marriage-neutral or marriage-friendly changes, and eliminating policies that create disincentives for marrying. Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services, for example, will combine the income of cohabiting, but unmarried, couples to determine a household’s eligibility for welfare. Combining cohabiters’ income will likely decrease their benefits, thus discouraging cohabitation and presumably encouraging marriage.

Several states have also added mild financial incentives for marriage. Mississippi and North Dakota now disregard the income of a stepparent in determining a household’s eligibility for welfare for the first six months after the couple marries. And Tennessee disregards the income of a stepparent if it is below 185 percent of the need standard for the household, including the stepparent. All three rules, however, encourage forming a stepfamily and apparently do not apply if the mother marries the child’s biological father.

Only one state provides a clear financial incentive for marrying the biological father. Since last July, West Virginia has been adding a flat $100 payment to a family’s monthly benefits if the parents are married and both live in the household and are named in the assistance check. Although not enough to offset the large financial penalties inherent in other means-tested welfare programs, the payment is the first unambiguous cash incentive for marriage.

Even these efforts, however, are quite timid given the severity of the marriage problem. Consequently, while recognizing the paucity of well-documented strategies for effectively promoting marriage, Congress should nevertheless use the upcoming reauthorization of TANF to require states to build support for marriage into their welfare reform efforts.

What Congress Should Do Next

First, Congress should make clear that the intent of the 1996 law was to promote marriage, not cohabitation or visits by nonresident parents. When it comes to improving the well-being of children, neither cohabitation nor visitation is the equivalent of marriage.

Second, states should be required to indicate in their state plan how they will use TANF funds to encourage marriage. Anyone who has ever spent any time in a state welfare office can attest to the striking absence of posters, literature, or conversation promoting marriage?and to the not-so-subtle message that marriage is neither expected nor valued. Requiring states to lay out their plans to promote marriage within the context of welfare will force them to take more seriously the idea of promoting the formation and stability of two-parent, married households.

Third, Congress should reduce the financial disincentives for marriage. The law that established the TANF block grant allowed, but did not require, states to eliminate the anti-marriage rules in the old AFDC program. Although many states have done so, others have not. Congress should require states to eliminate the anti-marriage rules. It should also examine financial penalties for marriage in other programs, especially the earned income tax credit, and reduce or eliminate them.

Fourth, Congress should implement incentives for marriage. It could, for example, suspend collection of child support arrearges owed the state should the biological parents get married. It also could require states to follow West Virginia’s lead and provide a cash bonus to single mothers on welfare who marry the child’s biological father.

More dramatically, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation suggests providing a woman at high risk of bearing a child out of wedlock a $5,000 cash payment if she bears her first child within marriage, to be disbursed in $1,000 annual payments over five years as long as she remains married. Although controversial, the proposal makes an important point. Marriage is in trouble, especially in low-income communities. If we are serious about restoring marriage, public policy will have to do more than simply strive toward marriage neutrality by removing existing financial disincentives for marriage. It needs to show that it values marriage by rewarding those who choose it.

Fifth, Congress should fund programs that enhance the marital and parenting skills of high-risk families. If marriage is to improve the well-being of children, parents must be able both to sustain a marriage and to be good parents?skills that many men and women lack. Some lack these skills because they grew up in broken homes without positive role models. Others had inadequate or abusive parents themselves. To help couples sustain a marriage and be good parents, Congress should provide resources to religious and civic groups to offer meaningful premarital education to low-income couples applying for or on public assistance.

Finally, Congress should begin to rebuild cultural norms surrounding marriage. It is naive to think that a welfare program designed to encourage marriage will succeed within a broader cultural context that regularly and consistently denigrates marriage. The next phase of welfare reform also must begin to change the broader social-cultural understanding of marriage and its importance to children, families, and communities. One way to do so is to earmark some TANF funds for a broad-based public awareness campaign to publicize the importance of marriage and the skills necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages.

Marriage is our most vital social institution, the seedbed from which healthy children and, ultimately, a healthy society spring. It is no accident that communities with lower marriage rates have higher rates of social pathology. Marriage matters?to children, adults, and communities.

Unfortunately, most states have been reluctant even to mention the word, let alone do something to encourage more of it. When it comes to promoting the formation and stability of healthy, mutually satisfying marriages, however, doing nothing hasn’t worked. Perhaps doing something might.