Can Uncle Sam Sell Americans on Marriage?

Conservatives think encouraging matrimony is the key to fighting poverty. Problem is, nobody knows how to do it. 

Wikimedia Commons

Republicans have rediscovered the problem of poverty, and the party's stars in Congress and the press have an idea for combating it: More marriages.

"The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent," Sen. Marco Rubio said in a speech last week. "But it isn't a government spending program. It's called marriage."

In The Wall Street Journalformer George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer concurred. "'Marriage inequality' should be at the center of any discussion of why some Americans prosper and others don't," he wrote, before suggesting the government would better off pushing matrimony than bulking up the safety net.

It is true that Americans who get married and stay married are unlikely to end up poor. As Derek Thompson noted last week, just 6.2 percent of wedded couples live below the official poverty line, compared to 31 percent of single mothers. Spouses share the costs of raising children and keeping a home, so it's easier for them stay financially afloat.

But does that make marriage a great anti-poverty tool, on its own? There are reasons to be skeptical. As Emily Badger has written, it's unclear that single mothers who later marry benefit much from their vows, in part because they tend to get divorced from men who are under-educated and underemployed.

And then there's this: Even if marriage were a miracle drug for poverty, it's not obvious how the government would promote more weddings.

How Promoting Marriage Can Backfire

It's often forgotten, but Clinton-era welfare reform was partly designed to encourage more stable, two-parent families, so that the government wouldn't need to support so many single mothers. After it passed in 1996, states began using federal funds to experiment with marriage promotion programs for low-income couples. The efforts were generally small scale. But they got a major boost in 2002, when the Bush administration funded the Building Strong Families project, a giant experiment in eight cities meant to test the idea that the government could help cultivate healthy relationships. More than 5,000 low-income couples, all unwed parents, were randomly given the chance to take classes focused on topics like childcare and communication, or assigned to a control group that did not take part.

The results? Lackluster. "This final impact analysis finds that BSF had little effect on couples’ relationships," researchers reported in 2012. Three years after the program ended, couples who had the opportunity to take the classes were actually somewhat less likely to stay together. Those fathers were also somewhat less likely to be involved in their children's lives.

Why on earth would taking a course about how to be a better parent and spouse make couples more likely to split up? The researchers speculated that, ironically, the courses helped some parents realize that they were in unhealthy relationships, and may have discouraged some fathers by dealing a blow to their self-esteem. "The need for fathers to 'step up' and be more responsible was one of the strongest messages that couples took from the program," they wrote. "This expectation may have led some fathers in particularly disadvantaged circumstances to instead distance themselves from their partner and children."

In short: Preaching care and responsibility backfired.

The study did have one big problem: class attendance. Of the parents who were selected to take part, only 10 percent actually completed their program.  Across all eight cities, only 45 percent came to any classes at all, despite incentives like transportation and on-site childcare. The experiment's results mix all the couples assigned to the program, whether or not they came to class.

This suggests another lesson: Unless marriage courses are mandatory, most low-income couples won't show up.

In Oklahoma City, where participation was highest, the results offered a glimmer of hope. As Brigham Young University Professor Alan Hawkins has noted, children of couples in the experimental group were 20 percent more likely to have lived with both parents since birth.

Not a Panacea: Just 'Another Tool'

Hawkins' own research offers some more reason to be optimistic about marriage promotion. In a paper for Family Relations, he and his co-authors looked at funding for healthy marriage initiatives across the country, and found that states that spent more per-resident generally had fewer single parents, lower rates of child poverty, and more married couples. Unfortunately, removing Washington, D.C. from the analysis rendered the results statistically insignificant.

In the end, marriage promotion might still be a fine idea, but it clearly needs more research. “Most public policy efforts in the beginning stages don’t work,” said Bradford Wilcox, who runs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia (and contributes to The Atlantic). He drew a comparison to pre-K programs, which liberals have embraced fervently, but have shown mixed results so far. It takes time to figure out successful policy models, he said.

"I don’t think anybody believes that marrying people off is a panacea," he said. "But I think that work and marriage are two important pieces of addressing the problem poverty in America.”

Brigham Young's Hawkins, who has also written a book on marriage promotion policy, made a similar point to me in an interview. "I don’t know anyone who sees these programs as making a big dent in poverty," he said. "What I hear about is this is another tool that addresses a crucial factor in poverty. It makes a more complete toolbox. It’s almost like we’re missing one particular kind of screw driver.”

If You Can't Promote Marriage, At Least Don't Punish It

Perhaps the government should be less concerned with encouraging marriage, and more concerned about discouraging it. Some welfare programs, such as  the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Medicaid, are designed in ways that unintentionally penalize married couples—a problem groups like the conservative Heritage Foundation have long decried. But unless you believe tax credits are really the number one impediment to lasting relationships in this country, it seems unlikely that those changes would convince more Americans to nest.

Another idea might be to re-route government benefits from single parents to married couples. That's what Rubio seems to have in mind when he says we should eliminate the EITC with direct wage subsidies for low-pay jobs (the EITC gets less valuable as a family's income grows, which can create a marriage penalty, but with wage subsidies, two-incomes are always better than one). The problem, as economist Jared Bernstein has noted, is that the change might just end up penalizing single parents and increasing child poverty.

And that brings us to the main point here: Cutting poverty by boosting marriage is an idea worth experimenting with. It is not, however, much of a plan. We know too little.

Thankfully, we do know how to decrease suffering through the safety net. If we want to step up the fight against poverty, perhaps it's best to focus on the familiar.