Why Welfare Hurts Marriage

Welfare discourages marriage, but fixing this problem goes deeper than a policy change.

Fallen wedding cake

The recently elected Governor of Kansas is looking to tackle an old but very important problem: welfare rules that punish marriage among the poor. Now, if you've been following Traditional Love (and if not, it's time you did!), you'd know that marriage is one of the best anti-poverty programs out there. One of the last things you want to do in fighting poverty is discourage people from getting married. Can Marriage End Poverty?


Ask any economist and they will tell you one simple fact: incentives matter. (They'll also probably tell you dozens of very complicated facts that will bore you to tears, which is why so few people ask economists about anything.) If you give someone an incentive to do something, they will be more likely to do it. But at the same time, if you give someone a disincentive to do something, you get less of it. This may seem like a very simple concept, but many politicians don't seem to grasp it very well.

And that's why there's a problem with welfare in general: it can easily give single parents disincentives to get married. Why? Because of something called "means testing."


A program that's "means tested" is a program that's designed to only go to people who need it. We want Little Orphan Annie to be able to get a welfare check, but we don't want Montgomery Burns going to the welfare office to get a few hundred-dollar bills to use to light his cigars. So we cut off access to these programs to those who make too much money, usually based off a federally-set poverty level. On the surface, this is a great idea: we don't want welfare going to people who don't need it.

But it also creates a problem. Take a single mother who receives about $14,000 a year in various welfare benefits. The father of her children has a low-wage job paying $15,000 per year. If they remain unmarried, they have a combined income of $29,000 per year. But if they marry, the father's income counts against the mother's welfare payments and the mother could see her benefits cut dramatically or even eliminated. Maternal Me Vs. Sexual Sue: Dating As A Single Mom

In 1996, as part of welfare reform, the federal government tried to reduce the disincentives to marriage in the welfare system, to mixed success. Some states tried similar efforts, but did little better. For example, here in Minnesota, the state government created the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), which increased marriage among welfare recipients, but only by 11 percent compared to seven percent for those outside the program. In the late 1990s, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating implemented an extensive program to cut Oklahoma's high divorce rate by a third by 2010. But as of 2010, Oklahoma still has one of the highest divorce rates in the country. Why Divorce Isn't Always Bad For The Kids

The problem with these fixes isn't that they weren't trying to solve a real problem, it's that the problem is a lot bigger than just the financial disincentives. Increasing marriage requires more than just making sure that welfare checks aren't reduced. It takes changing cultural attitudes over time, and that isn't something that governments can do very well.


While it is true that welfare creates disincentives to marriage, the story is much bigger than that: it's not just about the money. While Gov. Brownback may very well be right that Kansas' welfare system is reducing marriage, it's not just the financial disincentives that matter. Federal and state efforts to create more incentives for marriage are a good start, if states really want to increase marriage and decrease poverty they will need to take a much broader view and start rethinking the way we treat poverty in this country.