How Our Welfare System is Driving Americans Away from Traditional Marriage

NoWeddingWhen Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty, the United States had one welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Its purpose was to assist single parents. Today, there are literally dozens of programs, and in a recent article, Robert Rector, a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says it is not an accident that the institution of marriage has been in decline ever since.

Today the federal government provides a whole array of programs that offer benefits to families with children. They include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; the Women, Infants and Children food program; Supplemental Security Income; the Earned Income Tax Credit; food stamps; child nutrition programs; public housing and Section 8 housing programs; and Medicaid. While married couples can receive aid under these programs, the vast majority of assistance goes to single-parent households.

As the welfare state has grown, it has fostered single parenthood in two ways, says Rector:

First, means-tested welfare programs such as those described above financially enable single parenthood. It is difficult for single mothers with a high school degree or less to support children without the aid of another parent.

Means-tested welfare programs substantially reduce this difficulty by providing extensive support to single parents. Welfare thereby reduces the financial need for marriage. Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, less-educated mothers have increasingly become married to the welfare state and to the U.S. taxpayer rather than to the fathers of their children.

As means-tested benefits expanded, welfare began to serve as a substitute for a husband in the home, and low-income marriage began to disappear. As husbands left the home, the need for more welfare to support single mothers increased. The War on Poverty created a destructive feedback loop: Welfare promoted the decline of marriage, which generated a need for more welfare.

A second major problem is that the means-tested welfare system actively penalizes low-income parents who do marry. All means-tested welfare programs are designed so that a family’s benefits are reduced as earnings rise. In practice, this means that, if a low-income single mother marries an employed father, her welfare benefits will generally be substantially reduced. The mother can maximize welfare by remaining unmarried and keeping the father’s income “off the books.”

He gives the example of a single mother with two children who earns $15,000 annually. She would receive about $5,200 a year in food stamp benefits. If she marries a man with a similar income, however, her food stamps would disappear. If she is not working and receives benefits from Section 8, she would receive a subsidy worth about $11,000 annually. If she marries a man who earns $20,000 a year, her housing benefits would be cut in half. Both these programs encourage beneficiaries to remain unmarried. Since low-income single parents often benefit from a number of welfare programs, many of which contain “marriage penalties,” it becomes, Rector says, “economically irrational for most low-income couples to marry.”

He continues:

Marriage is good for children, mothers and fathers, but marriage is disappearing in low-income communities. In part, this is due to the fact that the U.S. welfare system actively penalizes many low-income parents who do marry.

What do you think about this? Is it time to revamp or get rid of welfare in America?

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