WV Center on Budget and Policy > Blog > Family Economic Security > Setting the Record Straight on Marriage, Welfare and Poverty

Setting the Record Straight on Marriage, Welfare and Poverty

Yesterday, the Daily Mail published an editorial claiming that “family disintegration”, or the lack of marriage among low-income West Virginians, is the central reason why the state ranks low in several social and economic welfare indicators, such as poverty, truancy, and crime to name a few. To make its case, The Daily Mail  relied on an outdated report from the Heritage Foundation that was published before the passage of “welfare reform” in 1996. 

While it is certainly true that a higher share of low-income families are headed up by single parents (see graph below) and that children do best in married-couple families with low conflict, the state’s welfare program (a.k.a. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) doesn’t directly penalize marriage (two-parent families).  In fact, two of the four purposes of TANF are to prevent and reduce the incidence of  out-of-wedlock pregnancy and encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. Since the replacement of AFDC with TANF in 1997, West Virginia has spent $130 million of its TANF dollars on “two parent family formation and maintenance” and about $30 million on preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

As the Urban Institute points out here, West Virginia is one of 37 states that has removed marriage penalties on two-parent families’ eligibility that were in place under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)  from 1935 to 1996. Today, eligibility is based solely on financial circumstances and the state does not restrict assistance to two-parent families. (As I pointed out above, the Heritage Foundation report was written when AFDC was still in place. This might help to explain why the Daily Mail seems confused about marriage penalty rules under welfare.)

One way TANF (also called West Virginia Works) in West Virginia may discourage two-parent families or married couples would be its relatively low eligibility limits that make it hard for couples to qualify.  According to the Urban Institute, West Virginia’s income eligibility limits (65% of federal poverty level) are lower than 35 other states. In response to rules that make it harder for states to serve two-parent families, the West Virginia Legislature created a separate TANF program in 2007  targeted at two-parent families that allows each parent to receive income support, child care, wage subsidies, and employment services.

In a review of the academic literature on TANF and marriage, the Center for Law and Social Policy found:

  • The ability to access TANF benefits may have a positive effect on low- income couples’ stability. While access to benefits does not necessarily lead to marriage, it does appear to increase the likelihood that a child will live with both parents.

  • In order for rules to have the hoped-for effect, public education is needed to insure that couples know that the rules have changed and that they can obtain cash assistance to create a stable home for their child.

  • Low-income couples value marriage. However, welfare benefits per se are not going to lead to marriage. Other services such as employment and training and alcohol/drug abuse counseling are needed, and at this point, much remains unknown about which, if any, public policies could increase marriage rates or could increase healthy marriages without having undesirable incidental effects. Moreover, domestic violence issues need to be addressed as does male/female distrust.

As the second bullet highlights, it seems that the Daily Mail is not alone in being  unaware about the rule changes under TANF for couples.

While marriage is an important and valuable institution that can help provide children with a safer and more financially secure environment, it is not an end in itself. The quality of marriage is much more important than the quantity. Some children and families are much better off separated than together. No one should stay married in cases of domestic violence which tends to happen more frequently in households receiving welfare. 

If we want to strengthen families and improve child well-being, we would be much better off focusing on decreasing teen pregnancy, helping low-income fathers meet their financial and parenting responsibility, and most importantly helping single mothers. As Princeton professor Sara McLanahan remarked several years ago in her article on parental absence and poverty, “reducing the economic insecurity of single mothers is probably the most effective tool for protecting children from the negative consequences of family disruption” and that “[i]f single mothers were more economically secure, they might take more time in selecting a new partner, which, in turn, might make remarriage more beneficial for children.”

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