LOPEZ: What is the marriage penalty, and what kind of difference could it make if it were lifted?
WILCOX: Robert Lerman at the Urban Institute estimates that many low-income families face a marriage penalty of up to 25 percent. This is because many of our public welfare programs — e.g., food stamps — are cut off for low-income families whose income rises above a certain threshold. And marriage often means a second earner enters the picture, thus disqualifying many low-income couples from means-tested programs. This means that some couples or single mothers have an economic incentive not to get married. In the report, we detail steps that could be taken to end this penalty. This would shore up the economic foundations of marriage among the poor and send the right signal about marriage to low-income communities where marriage is increasingly rare.
LOPEZ: Why are tax credits important for families with children?
WILCOX: Raising children is expensive, and well-formed children are a public good. They are the future taxpayers and citizens of the United States. This fact, and the fact that the economic foundations of working-class family life have been eroding since the 1970s, suggests that the nation should do more to shore up the economic foundations of family life in poor and working-class communities. I support tripling the child tax credit to $3,000 per child (and making this amount fully refundable) as one way to help families who are struggling to get by.
LOPEZ: What does the president have to do with this? What could he do about it?
WILCOX: In my view, the biggest thing that President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama could do is to get behind a public campaign to promote married parenthood, much like the campaign the First Lady has conducted on behalf of healthy eating. The Obamas have gone the distance in their marriage, and they could encourage more of their fellow citizens to follow in their footsteps for the sake of kids across this great country of ours. The president could also support efforts to make federal welfare and tax policy more marriage-friendly.
LOPEZ: How can we talk about marriage and divorce without making people feel bad about a marriage that did not work out?
WILCOX: We have to think about the future. Almost no one hopes that their children will face a future that includes divorce, single parenthood, or some other family difficulty. So, even though many of us adults have made mistakes or failed in marriage, I think we want the best for our children when it comes to their future family. We need to renew a marriage-friendly culture that manages to hold up the ideal of the intact, married family while treating departures from that ideal with grace and sensitivity. Our children deserve no less.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.