Married to the welfare state

Fifty-one years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty. Since then, taxpayers have spent more than $22 trillion fighting Johnson’s war, three times the cost of all military wars in U.S. history.

Last year, taxpayers spent more than $920 billion on 80 different anti-poverty programs.

Despite this spending, the percentage of Americans who are poor has barely budged since the late 1960s. As President Reagan put it: “We declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”

A major reason for the nation’s lack of success for the last half century has been the collapse of marriage. Marriage is a powerful force in reducing poverty; a single mother with children is four times more likely to be poor than a similar mother who is married. More than two-thirds of all poor families with children in the U.S. are headed by single parents.

But since the beginning of the war on poverty, marriage has declined sharply. In 1964, 7 percent of U.S. children were born outside marriage. Today, the number is 41 percent. Society is dividing into two castes. In the top half, children are raised by married couples with college education; in the bottom half, children are raised by single mothers with a high-school degree or less.

When compared to children in intact married homes, children raised by single parents are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems; be physically abused; smoke, drink, and use drugs; be aggressive; engage in violent, delinquent, and criminal behavior; have poor school performance; be expelled from school; and drop out of high school.

Given the effectiveness of marriage in reducing poverty and other social problems, you would think that strengthening marriage would be a top priority for the welfare state. Wrong. The welfare system does the opposite. Welfare actively penalizes marriage by reducing benefits when low-income couples do marry.

For example, a single mother with two children who earns $15,000 per year will generally receive around $5,200 per year from the Food Stamp program. However, if she marries a father with the same earnings level, her food stamps would be cut to zero. A single mother receiving public housing benefits would receive a subsidy worth on average around $11,000 per year if she was not employed. But if she married a man earning $20,000 per year, these benefits would be cut nearly in half.

The federal government runs more than 80 welfare aid programs; nearly all of them provide very real financial incentives for couples to remain separate and unmarried. Is there a way to reduce welfare’s marriage penalties without raising overall welfare spending and costing the taxpayer a bundle? Yes.

Shrink welfare fraud. Take the earned income tax credit. This program provides more than $56 billion per year in cash grants to low-income persons. But, according to the IRS, a quarter to a third of all EITC claims are fraudulent. It would not be hard to sharply reduce fraud and save some $10 to $15 billion per year. These savings could be redirected toward reducing marriage penalties in other welfare programs.

Reducing welfare’s marriage penalties would aid moms, dads and kids. That’s a positive first step toward actually winning the war on poverty.

 - Robert Rector is a Senior Research Fellow in The DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society Domestic Policy Studies.

About the Author

Robert Rector
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

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