How to fight the real enemies of marriage

Mike Huckabee was recently quoted as saying that “We need to understand there is a direct correlation between the stability of families and the stability of our economy… The real reason we have poverty is we have a breakdown of the basic family structure.”

Perhaps. But it might be fair to ask — do broken families cause poverty, or does poverty cause broken families? Or does some third thing cause them both to happen together? Depending on how we answer these questions, our policy responses will be very different. We may all care a great deal about families and about poverty, but if we don't get the relationship between them right, our policy prescriptions won't make things any better.

The correlation between stable families and wealth is fairly robust. It's been around for years. Correlation, however, is not causality. Some, like Huckabee, would use the government to promote marriage in the hopes of alleviating poverty. They'd hold that the problem is poverty, and the solution is to get married. Thus they might prescribe subsidies for marriage counseling, or subsidizing faith-based groups that promote marriage, or the ever-popular public service announcement. (Could we have a nanny state without them?)

One trouble with this approach is that other analysts, including noted conservative intellectual Charles Murray, have long observed that marriage is disincentivized in our welfare state. If you're poor, it often turns out that it costs a lot to get married.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation recently reviewed some of the data, and it's dispiriting to say the least. Even after the landmark Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 – welfare reform, for the rest of us – serious marriage penalties remain in our law, above all if you are poor. Most Americans don't notice or care very much about these things, because most Americans aren't poor.

But marriage does mean that you may face reduced benefits under some means-tested programs, lose benefits entirely under others, and, if you're a member of the working poor with children, you often lose the Earned Income Tax Credit. Advising the poor to get married may just make a lot of them even poorer. Programs including Supplemental Security Income, Medicare, and Medicaid all consider a spouse's income, and if you don't have a spouse, you'll get more from them.

Saying “marriage pays” is 100% backwards, then, at least in the short term. Unlike the rest of us, poor people usually know how the welfare system works, and they know perfectly well that if they get married, they lose some benefits. An ad campaign that touts marriage as an escape from poverty just makes the government look foolish, at least until we end these anti-family poverty traps.

The get-married-to-get-rich philosophy has other problems, too. America imprisons more people per capita than any other nation in the world, including even China and Russia. This is one price we're paying for “toughness” in the war on drugs. Disproportionately these people are poor and young. Overwhelmingly they are male. What's left are single mothers.

At some point, we face a tradeoff between being anti-drugs and being pro-family. With as many poor young men as we imprison, we should not be surprised when marriage rates suffer to some degree among the poor. People still generally marry into their own socioeconomic class, so depleting the ranks of poor single men will hurt marriage among the poor in particular.

It's hard to get married when you're in prison, and once you're out of prison, you're forever less marriageable. Ending prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses would do a great deal to promote intact families among the poor. Sure, these families would still face a lot of problems, drugs most certainly included, but imprisoning every father among them – and then shilling for marriage on a bus stop ad – can't possibly be the right answer.

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