A Choice Between Feeding Your Children or Getting Married

The following essay reflects on and continues A New Conversation on Marriage. The authors are president, affiliate scholar, and Center for Marriage and Families director at the Institute for American Values in New York City. Amber Lapp is co-authoring a new study of how working class young people are forming families.

Stephanie slips the brown paper sleeve off a Starbucks drink and starts tearing it artfully. A small hut emerges. "My vacation home," she says wistfully. Stephanie could use a vacation. Her last one was a weekend trip with her ex-boyfriend to the caves in Ohio's Hocking Hills -- which consisted of fighting in a tiny cabin and ended in their break-up. At age nineteen, Stephanie gave birth to her son and for years raised him alone. When he was four, she met and got pregnant with her current boyfriend, with whom she has a toddler. She and her boyfriend live together in a public housing duplex in small town, southwestern Ohio. Between the two of them, they have worked in just about every restaurant in town.

When asked what she thinks about marriage, Stephanie, whose own parents divorced several times, has a lot to say: "I believe you only get married once. So if I get married, I don't want to be divorced." Now that she and her boyfriend feel like family, she thinks it would be good to get married.

She says that marriage is more "binding" and "final," and better for children. But for Stephanie, marriage poses a terrible choice: "If we got married," she frowns, "what's going to happen with my food stamps? How am I going to take care of my kids if those get taken from me?"

Stephanie is right to be worried. Experts estimate that, for most couples receiving public assistance, getting married will reduce their benefits by 10 percent to 20 percent of their total income. For people already living at the margins and often mired in debt (Stephanie herself has no college degree, but does owe $10,000 in school loans), that possibility is enough to make them think twice about marriage. And yet, Stephanie is also right that marriage on average is far more stable for children than just living together. By age 12, children born to cohabiting couples are 170 percent more likely to see their parents split up, compared to children born to married couples.

For these reasons, President Obama's announcement in his State of the Union address last week that his administration plans to "remove financial deterrents to marriage" for low-income Americans is extraordinarily welcome. In recent years, Congress has worked to reduce marriage penalties in the tax system facing middle and upper income couples, but law makers have hardly begun to address marriage penalties in the public benefits system -- even though the greater economic stability that married couples tend to build over time could help some low-income couples get off welfare for good.

We propose a simple way to eliminate the marriage penalty for low-income Americans that does not require complex changes in existing regulations. Our proposal is for the government to allow couples to use a readily available online calculator to determine what loss in benefits they face if they marry, and then simply refund that amount for the first three years of their marriage. This modification would give lower-income newlyweds a grace period to become settled and stable as a married couple -- time to start building a better life for themselves -- before they lose critically needed benefits such as the food stamps that help them feed their children.

Too often in America, debates about marriage have divided us. Here is an example of a marriage reform that could unite us.

Liberals should like this proposal because it increases assets for the poor. Conservatives should like it because it encourages young parents to get married instead of shacking up, and it could reduce welfare dependency over the long term. President Obama often says that our nation's seniors should not be forced to choose between putting food on the table and getting their prescriptions. Similarly, young mothers like Stephanie should not have to choose between getting married or continuing to feed their children.

Removing marriage penalties for low-income Americans is one step toward rebuilding our middle class. Another is removing the savings penalties that also plague our welfare system. And a third, as President Obama is urging, is raising the minimum wage. With these and similar steps, we can once again claim to be nation where, through marriage and thrift, people without much money and from modest beginnings can eventually rise into the middle class.

To join a New Conversation on Marriage, you are invited to read the Call and become a signatory today.