Washington Week

Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 2000 / 2 Kislev, 5761

Welfare incentives that aid marriage

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- CONGRESS next year must decide what to do about the historic 1996 welfare reform legislation. Because most federal legislation expires after a certain period of time, Congress periodically must take up legislation anew and consider whether to continue it in its present form, change it or do away with it.

When it comes to the 1996 welfare reform legislation, what to do seems to be a slam-dunk. Since 1996, welfare caseloads have plummeted in nearly every state. Overall, welfare caseloads have dropped nearly 60 percent. Few federal reforms can boast about that kind of success. Obviously, we should continue with the program as it is, right?

Well, not exactly. Welfare reform has been successful in moving millions of previously welfare-dependent, single mothers off cash welfare and into the paid labor force. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is far better for children who grow up in a single parent household to have that parent in the paid labor force than on welfare.

Welfare reform, however, was not just about moving single parents off of welfare and into jobs. It also was intended to reduce the number of children living in single parent households. To accomplish this goal, the 1996 welfare reform did two things. First, it provided money to states to implement abstinence programs. (It's pretty hard to bear or father a child out-of-wedlock if you're sexually abstinent.) Second, it directed states to implement programs to encourage the formation and stability of families with married parents.

So far, most states have implemented efforts to send an abstinence message to young people. No state, however, has implemented any serious effort to encourage the formation and stability of families with married parents.

One reason state officials cite for not taking on the marriage issue is that we don't know what to do to encourage marriage. A new evaluation of a welfare reform effort in Minnesota, however, suggests we may know a little something about promoting marriage through welfare after all.

Known as the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), this welfare reform initiative, like most, was designed primarily to encourage work. On that score, the MFIP did pretty well. It substantially increased the employment status and earnings of families previously dependent on welfare, relative to a control group provided with a more traditional welfare program.

MFIP did something more as well. It also changed incentives within welfare in such a way so that low-income, married couples no longer were penalized financially for the decision to get or stay married.

Under traditional welfare rules, for example, there is something called the 100-hour rule. This rule says that low-income couples are ineligible for welfare if one of the adults in the household worked more than 100 hours in the previous month - even if that worker's earnings were not high enough to lift the family out of poverty. This rule, by the way, does not apply to single parent households. Many believe this rule provides a disincentive for marriage in that a single parent on welfare who married a full-time, low-wage worker would jeopardize her receipt of welfare benefits.

The MFIP also allowed married couples to earn more money than was the case under traditional welfare before they start to lose welfare benefits. In welfare vernacular, married families were allowed under MFIP to disregard more income when determining their eligibility for benefits than was previously the case. By allow this, MFIP planners believed they would discourage low-income, married couples from divorcing as a strategy for maintaining welfare benefits in the face of rising family income.

The results? MFIP participants who were single parents at the start of the program were 51 percent more likely to be married three years later than those who had been randomly assigned to the traditional welfare program. In addition, MFIP participants who were married at the start of the program were 38 percent more likely still be married three years later than those randomly assigned to the traditional welfare program.

These results provide dramatic new evidence that changes in welfare incentives can increase the likelihood that single parents will get married and that married parents will stay married. Apparently, welfare recipients, like everyone else, respond to financial incentives. That this should be a surprise is, well, a surprise to me.

Of course, there is a lot more to life than financial incentives. People get and stay married for all sorts of reasons, only some of which are financial. Indeed, I hope most reasons people get married are not financial.

Nevertheless, this study suggests that there are things government can - and should - do to increase the likelihood that couples will get and stay married. Part of what states can do is to get the financial incentives right. The other part is to help couples contemplating marriage to develop the skills necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages.

Congress should seize on the opportunity afforded by next year's re-authorization of welfare reform to ensure that states understand there is more they can do to promote marriage than many of them think.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn