Safety Net Programs, Marriage,
Wendell E. Primus and Jennifer Beeson
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
The vast majority of families with children receiving cash welfare assistance are headed by single mothers. In the 65 years since the establishment of the first national welfare benefit program, the demographic profile of families served by low-income programs has changed dramatically. Originally designed to serve a relatively small group of widows and abandoned mothers, welfare has evolved to serve mostly families headed by divorced, separated, or never-married mothers. New research reveals that a significant percentage of single mothers at all income levels-including those who receive welfare—are living with a man to whom they are not married, who may or may not be the father of her children.
The rise in the number of unwed mothers receiving low-income assistance over the last several decades and the increase in cohabitation has motivated policymakers and researchers to question whether welfare and tax policies influence a range of decisions about family, including decisions to marry, have children, or cohabit. Although the findings of academic researchers have been inconclusive, many lawmakers and others continue to express concern that the eligibility and benefit structures of means-tested programs may indirectly encourage singleparent families or discourage marriage. The cornerstone of this argument is that benefits for low-income single mothers are too high relative to benefits for married couple families and that families are better off cohabiting than being married.
This chapter attempts to investigate the validity in that argument. Do tax and transfer programs encourage single parenthood or cohabitation? Are there financial disincentives to marry or incentives for single parents to live together without marriage'? Can cohabiting families misreport income more easily than married families'? Calculating marriage penalties or bonuses for low-income single parents is more difficult than it may initially appear. Calculations of marriage penalties must take into account the living arrangements of the parents (separate or together), the earnings (if any) of the mother and father, the amount of welfare, food stamps, and other program benefits for which they qualify, their tax filing status, and child support payments, where appropriate. Marriage penalties vary depending on the situation of couples considering marriage. A key variable determining the size of the marriage penalty is whether the couple has children in common. The effects of marriage on disposable income are different for a single mother with a cohabiting partner than for a couple living together with one or more chil-