NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The War on Marriage

February 10, 2015

President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program launched the infamous "War on Poverty," but in a new report from the NCPA, Senior Fellow Devon Herrick says Great Society legislation ignored and thwarted the most effective antipoverty program: marriage.

Marriage rates have fallen dramatically since the Johnson era -- while 84 percent of adults aged 30 to 44 were married in 1970, the figure had dropped to 60 percent by 2007. For some demographics, the drop was even more dramatic: while 62 percent of black women in that age group were married in 1970, just one-third were married in 2007.

There are a number of reasons for the drop in marriage rates, but the government's role cannot be ignored. The U.S. tax code penalizes marriage, especially for low-income earners who are better off forgoing wedding vows in exchange for living together -- at least when it comes to receiving federal subsidies:

  • The poverty level is $11,490 for individuals and $15,510 for married couples. Two individuals living together, therefore, qualify for larger subsidies than a married couple would.
  • Consider a couple, each of whom earns twice the federal poverty level ($23,340 annually). Were they to marry, their household income would rise to 300 percent of the poverty level, limiting their eligibility for government benefits such as food stamps, health insurance subsidies and more.
  • Obamacare also penalizes marriage -- again, health insurance subsidies for exchange coverage are more generous for individuals than for couples. The couple mentioned above earning twice the poverty level would qualify for a subsidy of $1,151 each. If they marry, they would qualify for a subsidy of just $845.
  • If the cohabitating couple has a child and were to marry, they would owe $2,857 in higher taxes each year. On the other hand, were the couple to remain unmarried and the mother apply for food stamps for herself and her child, she would qualify for an additional $1,800 that would be unavailable to her were she to marry.

As a result, many couples may decide that they're better off living together than getting married. Unfortunately, unmarried households are far more likely to be in poverty than their married peers -- Herrick notes that single mothers with children are six times as likely to be in poverty as married parents with children.

For more on the unintended consequences of government policies, see the NCPA's new report, "Reflections During Black History Month: What Public Policies Are Hurting African-Americans?"

Source: Devon Herrick, "The Great Society Declared War on Marriage: Obamacare Made it Worse," National Center for Policy Analysis, February 10, 2015. 


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