Bill proposes marriage to break the cycle of poverty
U.S. Rep. Tom Petri is proposing marriage as a means for low-income individuals to break the cycle of poverty. Petri (R-WI) is introducing a bill that will offer incentives for low-income people to work and marry, which he says they now evade to receive tax and government-supported benefits. The bill is called the Making Work and Marriage Pay Act, and its detractors say it’s not a match made in heaven.
Stacy Harbaugh, communications director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said marriage should not be legislated. “This is a smokescreen for discriminating against low-income people,” she said. “While we have a situation in this country where same-sex couples are not treated the same, to promote marriage of low-income people is deeply offensive.”
Petri’s press secretary, Niel Wright, said the thought behind the bill is to not discourage marriage among low-income people by offering benefits that give greater financial advantage to single people. He said it’s an idea touched on in Charles Murray’s latest book, “The State of White America 1996-2010,” which laments that the ideal American way of life is fading as institutions like marriage appear to collapse.
U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate that marriage is on the decline. In 1996, 1.2 million couples were living together vs. 2011, when 7.6 million unmarried men and women shared households, according to the bureau. A recent Pew Research Center report issued in December says in 1960, 72 percent of adults 18 years and older were married compared to 51 percent in 2010. (UPDATED 2 p.m. 3/19/12. Click here for data from the U.S. Census Bureau)
“This is something the Congressman has been concerned about for some time,” Wright said. “Marriage is an important institution. The government should not discourage marriage.”
But it does, Wright said, by having tax codes that give preferential treatment to unmarried couples. An unmarried couple not reporting combined income can take home $8,000 more in income, Petri’s researchers say, which would undoubtedly impact the household finances. Additionally, benefits such as the earned-income credit have the unintended consequence of hindering low-income people to advance in the workplace.
“Improving your job skills and getting a raise can effectively lower your income because you are no longer eligible for benefits programs,” Wright said. “We want people to work their way out of poverty.” The bill’s intent is to remove those barriers on work and marriage and to change people’s behaviors.
Associate economics professor Scott Drewianka at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee acknowledged that Petri’s premise has some credibility but took a different view. “There is a marriage penalty in the tax law that affects partners with similar incomes,” he said. “I’d be surprised if it’s a huge effect on benefits.” And while there is a positive correlation between household income and marriage, Drewianka added, it’s not necessarily a causal relationship. “The other possibility is that they’re not getting married because they’re not financially stable,” Drewianka said. “That’s a question that hasn’t been answered.”
Deborah Taylor, the health relationship and marriage-enhancement program manager at the Social Development Commission, disagrees. She said she frequently sees clients forgoing marriage to maintain benefits, a practice she calls “widespread.” “I think some of what he’s saying is true,” she said of Petri. “There’s research to prove it; there’s really no benefit to getting married.”
Taylor mentioned the earned-income tax credit as one benefit that discourages marriage, a benefit that is lost as income rises. And she likened the phenomenon to senior citizens who live together–or even get divorced–to continue to receive their full Social Security benefits. “The system does not support two-parent families,” she said.
Petri’s bill, if enacted, would create a national commission to look at tax and subsidy policies and recommend comprehensive solutions.
“It’s a potentially bi-partisan bill with the goal of improving the lives of low-income people not simply by getting married,” said Wright. “We wouldn’t want to encourage marriage that would not take place if there weren’t disincentives.”
Harbaugh maintains that the bill obscures the larger perspective that low-income people lack resources, and that marriage is a personal decision. “That’s their freedom to make those decisions,” she said, “This is poorly designed legislation.”