Welfare Reform and Marriage

By Besharov, Douglas J.; Sullivan, Timothy S. | The Public Interest, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform and Marriage


Besharov, Douglas J., Sullivan, Timothy S., The Public Interest


Welfare reform has traditionally focused on helping single mothers get jobs, perhaps with the help of government-funded job training and child care. But such efforts are expensive and have shown only modest results. Recently, long-overdue efforts to reduce out-of-wedlock births have been made. But, again, results have been largely unimpressive. What about marriage as a route off welfare? Despite the hopes of feminists that women will become economically independent of men, marriage remains a major source of economic security for women with children, especially if they have few job skills. In fact, many divorced and unwed mothers escape welfare (and poverty) only through marriage. Hence, encouraging such unions ought to be as important an issue in welfare reform as job training and work.

Current welfare law, however, discourages marriage by imposing steep financial penalties on couples that wed. The poorest welfare mothers, disproportionately African American, suffer the stiffest "marriage penalties." The evidence suggests that these penalties, by poisoning attitudes about marriage and reducing the marriageability of many black men, are implicated in the low rates of marriage - and high rates of illegitimacy - across the African-American community.

Marriage pays

At any given time, 62 percent of welfare recipients are in the midst of a series of welfare spells that will eventually last a total of nine or more years, according to estimates by the Urban Institute's Ladonna Pavetti. Many mothers, especially older ones with better job skills or work experience, find jobs and leave welfare relatively quickly. But others, especially younger mothers who dropped out of high school or have little work experience, find it much more difficult to work their way off welfare.

It is easy to see why. Nationally, the total benefit package for a mother on welfare with two children is worth upwards of $8,500, with another $4,500 worth of Medicaid benefits, and, for the 30 percent lucky enough to receive them, about $5,000 in housing benefits. Most long-term welfare recipients simply cannot earn this much in their first jobs, but, even for those who can, work often "does not pay." They end up working 40 hours a week for the same money that the welfare system provides them for staying at home. And they have precious little time and energy left for their children. Job-training programs simply don't equip women with the skills needed to earn enough to escape this trap.

These realities are what make marriage such an important antipoverty mechanism. The economics is simple enough. The addition of a husband adds another wage earner to the household, reducing the need for paid child care or making it easier for the mother to work. Although income statistics by family structure also reflect underlying differences in who gets married, they make the point: In 1994, the median income for female-headed families with children was $14,902, compared to $47,244 for a married couple with children. About one-half of all single-mother households have incomes below the poverty line, compared to only 8 percent of married couples. Married couples also have sharply lower rates of dependence on government programs: In 1991 and 1992, about one-third of all single mothers participated in a major means-tested government-assistance program (such as welfare or Food Stamps) for the entire two years, compared to only 4 percent of married couples.

The role of marriage as a route off welfare is, however, easily underrated. For example, Kathleen Mullan Harris of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that about two-thirds of the monthly exits from welfare were because of a new job or a pay increase at an existing job. Only about 5 percent were due to marriage. But, as she notes, most of the mothers who leave welfare for work soon return to the rolls.

Indeed, the story is quite different for more lasting welfare exits. …

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