- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2020

A new study has found a “growing marriage divide” between wealthy and lower-income Americans driven, in part, by eligibility rules for social welfare programs that may deter working-class couples from marrying.

The research comes from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Department of Health and Human Services agency that oversees family policy.

Policy analysts say they’re increasingly concerned that eligibility rules for programs such as Medicaid and food stamps are prompting lower-income parents to stay unmarried while raising children. Higher rates of incarceration and teen pregnancy are more likely for those children, they say.

“Our public policies tend to penalize families, particularly working-class families,” AEI visiting scholar W. Bradford Wilcox said Thursday during a briefing on the study.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported in April that the U.S. marriage rate dropped by 6% in 2018 (with 6.5 new unions for every 1,000 people), the lowest rate since 1867, when the federal government began keeping the data.

Moreover, multiple researchers have documented that marriage is declining particularly among middle- and lower-income Americans.

The research brief, published Thursday by Mr. Wilcox and developed by the Administration for Children and Families Office of Family Assistance, reports that 72% of children are raised by married parents. However, it’s a different story for poorer and Black households.

“The nation’s marriage divide is concerning because a stable married home is typically the best environment for children,” writes Mr. Wilcox, whose report notes higher rates of high school suspensions, lower income and lower graduation rates among children in “unstable homes.”

Shifts in the economy and culture largely motivate decisions co-parenting or couples make about marriage, Mr. Wilcox says. But growing evidence finds the threat of being kicked off Medicaid, food stamps or other welfare programs is motivating poorer Americans to stay single.

The research brief raises alarms for policymakers, says Elaine Maag, principal research associate for the Urban Institute. A consensus of Democrats and Republicans see marriage as valuable, especially for children, she says.

For example, a pregnant woman earning $21,000 a year and cohabiting with a man earning $29,000 might be disincentivized from marriage in states such as Arizona and Ohio, as their joint income would make her ineligible for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the research shows.

“What is government doing and is it encouraging or discouraging behaviors that we think would be helpful?” Ms. Maag said.

About 31% of U.S. adults report knowing someone who chose not to marry for fear of losing public benefits, according to a 2017 American Family Survey. Some couples can lose access to federal aid via the Temporary Assistance for the Needy Families program and the Earned Income Tax Credit if their combined incomes top a percentage above the poverty line.

All amount to “steep penalties” for getting married, says Mr. Wilcox.

The decline in marriage rates is not unique to the United States. Countries, particularly those in Europe, have struggled to incentivize — or remove barriers — to marriage.

Last year, Reuters reported that Hungary sought a “baby boom” with loan forgiveness for married women for the more children they bear. In 2007, married couples in one Russian city were given the day off and told they would be awarded a refrigerator for conceiving a child.

Researchers say erasing the “marriage penalty” through, say, a child allowance or using a single parent’s income to determine eligibility for a government program, especially for lower-income Americans, is tricky. Offer too much assistance and some Americans may opt to leave the labor force, said Angela Rachidi, a scholar with AEI.

“I have some concerns about that because you once make it more generous for married families, you start to introduce some work disincentives,” Ms. Rachidi said. “But in the long run for people who’d prefer working and because of government programs choose not to, it likely does not benefit them in the long run.”

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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