Does Government Policy Toward Marriage Make Sense?
Marriage of William Penn & Hannah Callowhill at a Friends-Meeting-House, available from Wikimedia Commons
Almost all of America’s elected officials proclaim their support for marriage even as they create ever more ways to penalize it.
If creatures from Mars—well, slightly more likely, from one of Saturn’s moons—came down to look at our legal treatment of marriage, they would find the following. At younger ages—the times when incomes tend to be lower and households are raising children—Congress threatens massive penalties on marriage vows. (I’ll discuss below why I emphasize “vows.”) However, when individuals are older and less likely to be raising children, Congress provides substantial marriage vow bonuses.
In effect, Congress has decided to penalize marriage most at life stages when children benefit most from the commitment of more than one adult. There’s got to be a much better balance.
How did this situation arise? The penalties came about as more income-tested social welfare systems combined with the direct taxes to impose a much higher combined tax rate on additional earnings for a married couple than if they would remain single or divorced. Net subsidies arise when individuals get higher income by becoming or remaining married.
Within our complex tax and spending systems, programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, rental housing subsidies, the earned income tax credit (EITC) and Medicaid all take away benefits as income rises, particularly above poverty. Earn an additional $10,000, and it’s not uncommon to be left with half of that amount or less, even before counting the cost of items like commuting to work and childcare. Almost three decades ago, Linda Giannarelli began labeling the consequence as the “Twice Poverty Trap.” The marriage penalties come along as a corollary, particularly when one low earner marries another low earner, pushing the family to face many benefit phase outs.
Meanwhile, Social Security is designed so that there are almost no marriage penalties and only marriage bonuses. Married couples often achieve lifetime bonuses of $100,000 or more relative to two unmarried individuals with similar lifetime incomes and Social Security taxes paid. The income tax rate structure also offers mainly marriage bonuses, but a large percentage of lower-income households don’t pay income tax.
Should we care? We do know of a simple negative correlation: marriage is less likely when there are penalties for it. But that’s not rigorous evidence. Even though it’s hard to determine the long-term effect of gradually-learned government systems on behavior, I suggest that the unfairness of the system by itself makes a strong case for reform.
You see, the big losers are those who believe in the marriage vow. For almost all other situations where adults live together, there is no penalty. People might share a house, a college dormitory, or a nursing home and achieve the economies of scale in living that our various government programs effectively try to tax away only for married individuals on the theory that two people can live more cheaply together than separately. Some programs in theory provide fewer benefits to larger households, but then government has pretty much given up trying to sneak into households to determine if some adults are living together. For someone who doesn’t care one way or the other whether they take formal vows, the system of marriage penalties and bonuses is essentially discretionary. Don’t marry when penalties are present; do marry when there are bonuses.
Clearly, much of what has happened to the family over recent decades evolves from cultural forces far beyond the control of government. Isabel Sawhill has suggested that it seems impossible to put the marriage genie back in the bottle. Yet, at the same time, she has been a leading force in the effort to reduce teenage pregnancy, which often reduces prospects for marriage. Richard Reeves own Fathers’ Day Substack column, following up on his book on the struggles of modern men, Of Boys and Men, argues in somewhat the same vein that while fathers may not be married, it remains quite important for them to remain a strong presence in their children’s lives. Andrew Yarrow’s Man Out book about the growth in men on the sidelines in American life similarly struggles with how much government can do, yet he argues for restoring “faith in government.”
All these authors, one way or the other, find that they cannot give up on promoting the sanctity and importance of commitment,” vowed” or not. After all, it’s a crucial ingredient in addressing the welfare of both children and those men and women who have become disconnected from society. I, myself, am quite uncomfortable with a government that tells many struggling households that they will make themselves significantly worse off, at least income-wise, through a marriage commitment.
Republicans and Democrats have increasingly invested themselves in finding new ways to fight over aspects of culture over which they have very little control. Might not marriage penalties be one cultural realm where they do have some limited power and share a common view?