NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Paid to Stay Single

September 17, 2015

Recent reform of the tax code and welfare benefits structure have nearly eliminated the penalty for married couples. But according to an R Street policy study, a major disincentive has been created against marriage for cohabitating partners.

Depending on the relationship between cohabiters and their combined and relative earnings, getting married can result in bonuses of as much as 11 percent of their combined income or penalties of more than about 32 percent of their combined income.

  • In Arkansas, for example, if a nonparent recipient of means-tested social-welfare benefits marries a parent of two who also receives state benefits, the couple will lose 32 percent of benefit income.
  • Penalties can be avoided by failing to disclose paternity or misreporting the extent to which food and utility costs are shared, encouraging contempt for the law.
  • While unmarried, many of these cohabiting couples receive means-tested government assistance, even while married couples with lower incomes do not.

A major problem with the current system is the sudden loss of social welfare benefits when combined income for married couples suddenly increases. This is the case for couples who marry while receiving benefits through Medicaid, WIC and HUD. For these programs, benefits do not phase-out, but instead continue unchanged as income rises and then suddenly terminate entirely if income exceeds the eligibility threshold by even one dollar.

Means-based social-welfare programs could adopt a policy similar to the married-filing-jointly option in the tax code. As in the tax code, that would not mean ignoring all of a cohabiting household's higher income. Rather, an adjustment could be made to reflect society's interest in stable family arrangements.

Source: Douglas J. Besharov and Neil Gilbert, "Marriage Penalties in the Modern Social-Welfare State," R Street, September 2015.


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