Programs Should Put Family First
The state of our unions in the United States is not strong. The marriage rate has fallen more than 60% since 1970. Fertility rates reached a record low in 2020, well below the replacement rate. The falling fortunes of marriage and family life have hit the working class especially hard. No group has seen the share of its kids living in married homes fall as much as the American working class. In the last 50 years, the share of working-class children living in married-parent families fell a staggering 30 percentage points, from about 85% in 1970 to approximately 55% in 2020.
The fragility of American family life, especially among the working class, demands a strong public policy response. This response must strengthen the economic and cultural foundations of marriage and child-rearing in America, especially for working-class families. Congress should take three steps to make marriage and family life more appealing and affordable for ordinary Americans.
First, the federal government should, at the very minimum, “do no harm” when it comes to marriage. Many of our means-tested programs and policies, from Medicaid to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), penalize marriage, especially for working-class families earning between about $25,000 and $50,000. For many parents in this income bracket, living together unmarried, with one parent collect means-tested benefits and tax credits, often makes more sense than marrying and losing access to these valuable benefits and programs. The problem with this strategy is that cohabitation is much less stable than marriage as a foundation for family life.
What’s the solution to this problem? The federal government should restructure means-tested policies and programs to stop penalizing marriage. For instance, income thresholds for these programs could be doubled for married families compared to single-parent families. To minimize the cost of this approach, more generous thresholds for married families could be limited to families with children under the age of five. In the case of the EITC, one of the largest programs supporting working families, restructuring the benefit as a wage subsidy to low-income workers rather than as a program based on household size would minimize marriage penalties.
Second, to strengthen the financial foundations of working families, Congress should pass legislation advancing a permanent, generous family benefit that reinforces work and marriage, loosely modeled on the Family Security Act (2.0), from Senators Mitt Romney and Steve Daines. Under that proposal, families with at least $10,000 in earned income in the last year would receive $4,200 per child per year for children aged zero to five and $3,000 per child for those aged six to 17, paid in monthly installments of $350 and $250, respectively. Families whose income fell below the $10,000 threshold would receive a fraction of the benefit commensurate with their earned income. Such a policy could further support family formation by adding a 20% supplement to the credit per child for married households.
A family benefit should target working families, rather than being paid unconditionally to families with no earners, as President Biden did with the temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit in 2021. Public policy should not create incentives to form families fully dependent on the government, often headed by a single parent. Welfare policy made this mistake from the late 1960s through 1996 when welfare was reformed to encourage work and marriage; poorly designed welfare policies in this era were one reason why the share of single-parent families surged in the last half of the 20th century. Moreover, in recent decades, America has seen a rising number of prime-aged men depending upon government benefits and not working. Children benefit from being raised in a home headed by their married parents with at least one parent engaged in the labor force; a family benefit should reinforce work and marriage, not substitute for them.
The financial challenges to family life for working- and middle-class families are important but they are not the only barriers. There are also substantial cultural obstacles, with many young adults ignorant of or discounting the importance of marriage for themselves and any children that they have. To remedy this, the federal government should support public service ad campaigns on behalf of the “Success Sequence.” This is the idea that taking three steps—1) getting at least a high school degree (education), 2) working full-time in your 20s (work), and 3) marrying before having children (marriage)—give young adults an unparalleled shot at realizing the American Dream. Research indicates that the vast majority (86%) of young adults who take these three steps before having children reach the middle class or higher in their 30s and that 97% avoid poverty at this stage in life. The federal government should support campaigns and programs that publicize the worth of these steps and, given the erosion of marriage among young adults, place special emphasis on the economic, social, and emotional value of marriage for adults and children.
Previous campaigns related to drunk driving, teenage pregnancy, and smoking have helped steer the country in a better direction, and by the standards of most federal programs their costs are de minimis. For instance, the federal government could give $250 million annually in grants to states and nonprofits that develop innovative campaigns and programs to promote the value of the Success Sequence. These campaigns and programs should be evaluated for their success in changing attitudes among young adults regarding the social, psychological, and financial value of the sequence, especially marriage. These efforts should focus on young adults from lower-income communities who are currently least likely to follow the steps.
America stands at a crossroads. Our most important institution, the family, is foundering. Given the importance of strong and stable families for our kids, communities, and the country, nothing is more important than moving to renew the economic and cultural foundations of the American family. Policymakers need to move quickly to eliminate marriage penalties, expand support for working families, and promote the message that family matters. Taken together, these measures would improve the appeal and affordability of marriage and family life for all Americans.