On the heels of a recent U.S. Senate report on the breakdown of the family came another eye-opening report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on how government policies encourage cohabitation and single-parent families.
While the AEI report provided good news that 72 percent of children are being raised by married parents, it also gave us a disturbing look at how government policies are undermining, and actively discouraging, marriage among those in lower economic strata.
While educated and affluent homes exhibit marriage and familial stability, it is the exact opposite of those homes with adults with less education. In those homes, single parenthood is twice as high, in contrast to college-educated homes. Especially tragic is the fate of black children, who are often raised in lower economic households, and thus far less likely to have both parents at home.
As the AEI report states, “This form of family inequality is particularly troubling because it leaves many working-class and poor children ‘double disadvantaged’ – navigating life with fewer socioeconomic resources and an absent parent.”
Even more troubling is that government policies enable this family dysfunction. Here is how: Means-tested tax and transfer programs actually penalize marriage among low-income families because unmarried couples lose critical federal subsidies and tax benefits if they get married.
The AEI report states that a pregnant woman earning $21,000 per year who cohabits with a man making $29,000 a year would likely be eligible to receive money from the Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). However, if she marries, their combined income of $50,000 makes her ineligible for taxpayers to pay for her childbirth and associated prenatal care, which is estimated to cost $12,000 annually. So the government has made it financially beneficial to not marry so she can continue to receive that support.
This fact was borne out by a 2016 AEI survey that asked men and women below the poverty line if they thought unmarried adults would choose not to get married in fear of losing welfare benefits. Twenty-four percent responded “almost always” and 23 percent said “often.”
This is again the consequence of the intellectual and policy bankruptcy of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms of the 1960s, which created these subsidies. Also, as federal programs grow, and lower-income families take part in even more means-tested benefits, the temptation to not get married only grows stronger.
These cohabitating couples now face even more marriage penalties, only accelerating the decline of stable families amongst those with less education and opportunity. Thus we end up with government-sanctioned dysfunction—with children paying the price.
In my book, “American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation,” I discuss how government policies that discourage two-parent families enhance a cultural caste system that establishes a dividing line between the haves and have-nots before they exit the womb. If children are born into a stable two-parent family, they are likely to be successful in life. If not, they are far more likely to fall prey to social pathologies such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, crime, and despair.
Timothy Carney perhaps put it best when he wrote, “We are left, then, with a society where intact families are not the norm, but a luxury good. That’s hardly a healthy foundation.”
So, what can be done? First, our government policies should be changed to encourage, not discourage, marriage by no longer financially penalizing low-income couples if they marry. Couples should be rewarded, not penalized for marriage. The AEI report offers several suggestions for how that can be done.
Secondly, low-income Americans need to receive vocational training that will allow them to progress financially, so dependence on government subsidies is not an obstacle to their marriage and raising a family. Finally, as the AEI report concurs, any efforts to eliminate the marriage penalty must be aggressively promoted to low-income families so the message that it does not pay to marry is put to rest, and marriage is seen as a benefit, rather than a detriment, to citizens’ personal well-being.
That said, the last thing we would want to see is an expansion of the welfare state that created this issue in the first place. No problem will ever be solved by just throwing money at it.
First and foremost, we must promote policies that raise low-income Americans out of poverty and put them on the road to self-sufficiency. That also means policies that encourage, rather than discourage, business development in low-income areas, which provides jobs and hope, and hopefully makes the issue of government dependence moot.
Such steps will help bring financial and emotional healing to low-income Americans and be a critical first step in restoring marriage as the ideal, rather than perceived as a hardship.