Senate report examines impact welfare programs have on 'demise of the 2-parent home'

Unsplash/Irina Murza
Unsplash/Irina Murza

Republicans on the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee recently released a report on “The Demise of the Happy Two-Parent Home,” which points to federal welfare programs as a possible contributing factor to the decline in marriage.

“The problem isn’t just that federal welfare spending enables women to choose govt programs over a husband, it is that the eligibility requirements force women to choose. In many cases if a woman gets married, they lose these benefits!!!” Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who is chairman of the committee, commented on Twitter last week.

The report “examines the state of family stability in the United States and describes policy approaches to ensure that more children are raised by two happily married parents.”

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“Researchers have well established that children raised by married parents do better on a wide array of outcomes,” the report reads. “They have stronger relationships with their parents, particularly with their fathers. They are also much less likely to experience physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. They have better health, exhibit less aggression, are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, have greater educational attainment, and earn more as adults. They are also far less likely to live in poverty.”

The report compares the state of family stability in the 1960s, at the dawn of the sexual revolution, to family stability in 2019. In 1962, 71% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 were married. That figure dropped to 42% in 2019.

The declining marriage rate has not led to a corresponding decline in childbirths. Instead, the percentage of children born to unmarried mothers has increased dramatically.

In 1960, only 5% of American children were born to unmarried mothers. In 2019, the share of American children born to unwed mothers stood at 40%. An explosion in the number of unmarried mothers was accompanied by a sharp increase in cohabitation, where unmarried couples live together as partners.

Before 1970, less than 1% of couples living together were unmarried. In 2019, cohabiting couples comprise one out of every eight couples that live together. Studies have shown that cohabitation is no substitute for a committed marriage.

“While unmarried mothers are often cohabiting with the father of their child at the time of the child’s birth, cohabiting relationships are far less stable than marriages,” the report explains. “In a 2007 study researchers found that 50 percent of children born to cohabiting parents experienced a maternal partnership transition by their third birthday, compared to just 13 percent of children in married-parent households.”

The rise in illegitimate births, combined with the increase in the divorce rate, has caused the proportion of children living without one or both parents to double from 15% in 1970 to 30% in 2019.

When examining possible reasons for the decline in marriage and the rise of illegitimacy, the report points to the expansion of the public safety net as a contributing factor that has been “unduly neglected” in the discussion.

While noting that “much work remains in sorting out and apportioning blame for the decline in family stability,” the report argues that most welfare programs that “provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans” “penalize marriage.”

“Public ‘anti-poverty’ programs often exacerbated the problem of family instability by making single parenthood a more viable option and by discouraging marriage among those receiving benefits,” the report states. 

“A safety net marginally reduces the costs of single parenthood, nonmarital childbearing, and divorce. It also can create a significant tax on marriage because the addition of a spouse with income typically reduces safety net benefits, and if he has only modest earnings or unsteady employment, the trade-off may not be worthwhile.”

It further reads: “Through the safety net alone, a single mother can achieve about two-thirds of the standard of living she could get from marrying a sole breadwinner at that compensation level. The safety net would put her about one-third higher, with no additional income, than the 10th percentile of male compensation.”

“At the margin, more women are able to substitute federal benefits for the income a husband would have provided them in the past,” the report adds. 

The report also examines the “marriageable man” hypothesis — which rests on the premise that “men must meet some economic threshold that makes them ‘marriageable to women’” — as a possible cause in increasing family instability. According to that hypothesis, “fewer men have surpassed that bar over time.”

But the report rejects that hypothesis as it notes that hourly pay is “as high as ever” and men’s after-tax annual compensation is higher today compared to 50 years ago.

“The evidence, then, suggests that men are no less marriageable by the most straightforward metrics than they ever were,” the document contends. 

Offering suggestions on “strengthening family stability,” the committee breaks it down into four broad categories: “messaging, social programs, financial incentives, and other policies.”

It suggests the implementation of “public or private media campaigns” designed to “advance the goal of family stability.” 

As examples, the report cites a 2013 New York City public education campaign highlighting the consequences of teenage pregnancy and then-Senator Barack Obama’s speech on Father’s Day 2008 stressing the importance of present fathers. 

There’s also a need to create and promote social programs to “help people develop the skills and knowledge necessary to prepare for, build, and maintain healthy marriages and families,” the report notes. 

It cites the Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Initiative, which teaches couples about “improving conflict resolution skills, co-parenting strategies, relationship satisfaction, marital commitment, and other outcomes.”

As for “financial incentives,” the committee suggests “safety net reforms to reduce marriage penalties” and “providing additional tax benefits for married couples,” such as expanding the Child Tax Credit, which “reduces tax liability for parents,” for married couples.

While the report ultimately rejects the “marriageable man” hypothesis, it says that “efforts to improve economic opportunities could help people meet their expectations regarding work and marriage, could make men more attractive as potential partners and fathers, and thus may lead to greater family stability.”

“Changing the course of family stability will likely require substantial effort, given the magnitude of the challenge in many American communities today and the pervasiveness of the decline,” the report acknowledges.

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