- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

New research indicates that welfare is crimping the formation of families as benefits extend into the lower-middle class.

A study released last week by scholars from the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies shows that some unmarried couples are less likely to wed if their welfare benefits will be cut for doing so.

The “Marriage, Penalized” study notes that welfare recipients no longer are relegated to the lowest class of society. More than four-in-10 American families at some point draw on means-tested government benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

“The expanding reach of the welfare state means that a substantial share of lower-middle-class couples with children receive such aid — and many of these couples receive more generous support if they are unmarried,” the study says.

Unwed couples whose oldest child is two years old or younger, and who earn $24,000 to $79,000 in family income, are more likely than their poorer counterparts to see their welfare benefits reduced after marrying. Among such couples, 82 percent would face a “marriage penalty” in getting married, compared to 66 percent of unwed couples earning less than $24,000.

Lower-middle-class couples, where each individual’s income is already close to the welfare cutoff point, are 2 percent to 4 percent less likely to marry if they would face a welfare penalty by doing so, the study found. Drawing on welfare did not have an effect on the marital decisions of poorer couples, who would face a lower or no penalty by marrying.

W. Bradford Wilcox, one of the study’s co-authors, said the study’s findings show that welfare is “not the most important factor in explaining why we see a pretty marked increase in single parenthood and unmarried childbearing in the last 40 years.”

“But there’s a minority of couples who would say, yeah, it’s a factor that’s sort of shaping their thinking about marriage,” said Mr. Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “And they’re thinking about getting married, but they’re hesitant to do so for fear of losing access to Medicaid or food stamps.”

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that access to welfare shapes the decision-making of couples considering marriage. The study found that among Americans aged 18 to 60, one-third said they knew someone personally who has not married for fear of losing welfare benefits.

Mr. Wilcox’s previous research suggests that policymakers should be concerned with the deleterious effect of welfare on middle-class marriage rates.

While marriage continues to flourish among the affluent and has remained in a steady state of disrepair among the poorest class, the institution appears to be most vulnerable to decline among the middle class.

In his 2010 paper “When Marriage Disappears,” Mr. Wilcox pointed to a number of trends that indicate middle-class marriages are beginning to resemble lower-class ones.

For instance, the same percentage of highly educated and moderately educated married couples, 69 percent, reported that they were “very happy” in their marriages in the 1970s. That number was the same among highly educated married couples by the 2000s, but had declined to 57 percent among moderately educated married couples.

And even though divorces within the first 10 years of marriage as a whole declined from the 1970s to the 1990s (including from 15 percent to 11 percent among the highly educated), they remained nearly identical for the moderately educated, increasing slightly from 36 percent to 37 percent. That figure now closely mirrors the 10-year divorce rate among the least educated, which declined from 46 percent to 36 percent over the same period.

The most recent study suggests several ways to reform welfare so as not to discourage marriage and stable family formation.

First, it recommends increasing the cutoff for food stamps and Medicaid for married couples with children under the age of 5 to twice the level for similarly situated single parents.

“So if you’re thinking about getting access to Medicaid, thinking about food stamps and are the parent of small children, then your decision to get married will not make you less likely to qualify for those programs,” Mr. Wilcox said.

Second, the government could compensate married couples who lost means-tested welfare benefits with refundable tax credits of up to $1,000. This not only would tip the financial scales in the direction of marriage but also would “send a clear signal that the government does not wish to devalue marriage,” the study notes.

The authors further recommend policy experimentation on the local level, such as allowing couples to continue drawing welfare benefits after marriage over an extended period, as well as restructuring policy so as not to favor being a single parent over getting married. Reforms that simultaneously encourage marriage and keep costs down then could be implemented on the national level.

“In light of the important role that stable marriage plays in preserving the American Dream for men, women, and children, federal and state policymakers should seek to reduce marriage penalties that increasingly confront lower-middle-class families,” the study says. “No one wants to see government efforts to support the lower middle class undermine the stability of the very families they are intended to help.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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