OP-ED, The Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2008; Page A15
What if the federal government forced couples to pay 20% of their annual income just to get or stay married? And suppose a couple could avoid this tax if they either got a divorce or never got married in the first place?
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Does it sound like good public policy to force a couple earning, say, $60,000 a year to pay $12,000 just for being married?
That's more or less what we demand of millions of low-income Americans who receive government welfare benefits. For most couples on welfare, getting married is among the more expensive decisions they will face as newlyweds, because saying "I do" will reduce the benefits they receive, on average, by 10% to 20% of their total income.
We shudder to think what would happen to marriage in America if all of us, and not just the poor, faced such a pernicious incentive system.
Knowledge of the marriage penalty in poor neighborhoods is typically spread by word of mouth. This informal learning might actually increase the antimarriage impact of the penalty, by convincing nearly all poor couples that they will lose income if they marry, even though some (due to the complexity of the regulations) would not.
In recent years, Congress has made substantial progress in reducing the marriage penalties paid by middle and upper income couples because of the tax system. But lawmakers have done little to address marriage penalties facing the poor through the benefit system.
Why should we care about this issue? For starters, consider the children. A wide range of studies have found that children whose parents are married are significantly less likely to use drugs, have emotional problems, drop out of school, or get into trouble with the law. Studies also consistently find that married adults tend to be happier, healthier and ultimately wealthier than their unmarried but otherwise similarly situated peers.
So when we penalize poor couples for getting married, we are giving them a strong incentive not to take advantage of an institution that would likely help them lift themselves out of poverty over time. Being married gives couples a greater capacity to build assets and economic stability, which could help get them off of welfare for good.
For these reasons, it's time to eliminate the marriage penalty for low-income Americans. Our proposal is simple: Don't make them pay it. We should allow newly married couples to continue to receive all of their benefits for the first three years of marriage, thus mitigating the marriage penalty currently paid by lower-income couples. This adjustment should give newly married couples a sufficient grace period to realize the economic benefits of marriage – and save some money to stabilize their financial situation – before government benefits cease.
When that day comes, the government's message to low-income Americans will have changed dramatically. We will be saying: Your marriage matters – for you and for all of us. We will no longer penalize low-income Americans who wish to marry.
Liberals ought to support this idea, because it means more money for the poor. Conservatives ought to support this idea, because it is pro-marriage, and because it may help to reduce welfare dependency over the long run. Everyone ought to like this idea because it could help reduce the suffering that so frequently accompanies family fragmentation and divorce.
What's the next step? We need to test this idea. In five or so lower-income communities across the country, we need local leaders and public officials to work together to design programs to reach out to low-income engaged and married couples, make sure they know that they will not pay a marriage penalty for the first three years of their marriage, and help them to calculate their savings from this program.
Ideally, such outreach programs would be one part – the financial part – of broader community-based efforts to strengthen marriage. The results of these pilot projects would be carefully evaluated by independent scholars. Do marriage rates increase? Does the well-being of women, men and children improve? If the answers are yes, this idea could be extended to the nation as a whole.