Politics & Policy

Putting Marriage back at the Center of Welfare Reform

(Photo: Shuo Wang/Dreamstime)
For too long, public policy has discouraged low-income couples from tying the knot. The bipartisan legislation we helped pass in Minnesota aims to change that.

Editor’s Note: The following piece was originally published by the Institute for Family Studies. It is adapted here with permission.

Many discussions about safety-net programs tend to focus on financial cliffs — how the impact of getting a raise or working additional hours may make participants ineligible for the very benefits they need to move into economic stability. Marriage is rarely part of this discussion, even though numerous studies show marriage is an important tool for moving families out of poverty. That marriage is often absent from these discussions is especially ironic, since the promotion of family stability — by encouraging marriage and discouraging nonmarital births — was among the chief policy rationales for welfare reform in 1996.

After reviewing research stressing the importance of eliminating marriage penalties, we developed and successfully advocated for legislation that would create a “honeymoon” period for newly married couples receiving assistance through Minnesota’s version of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The legislation received strong bipartisan support and was enacted by a Republican Legislature and Democratic governor Mark Dayton in 2017. In our view, it represents the bipartisan possibilities of enacting legislation based on the consensus that marriage is a vital tool for reducing poverty and fostering child well-being.

Crafting a Policy

Minnesota’s version of TANF is the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), which provides work support and cash assistance for children and their parents, who are often low-wage workers between jobs. There has been no increase in the amount of the cash benefit to participants in over 30 years. Both of our organizations were involved in advocating for an increase.

As we talked with people of faith across our state, especially religious leaders, we kept hearing about couples who wanted to be married but couldn’t afford to make this decision because adding another adult to the family’s income would put them over the poverty threshold used to determine eligibility. The concerns were often strongest for couples expecting a baby who wished to be married before the birth of their child. Unfortunately, marriage would result in a loss of benefits at the exact time the new mother would be unable to work. We sought to address this marriage disincentive.

Framing the Legislation

The legislation won’t become effective until later in 2018. But we hope it will allow low-income couples in Minnesota to marry at the time they feel it is best for them and their children, creating both financial and emotional stability for their families.

In our experience, all elected officials want to help families and individuals in poverty. They desire all our citizens to be economically stable and prosperous, but they often have different ideas about how to make that happen. Our goal was to frame our bill in a way that showed a commitment to helping children live in stable, secure homes that lawmakers from both parties could champion.

To that end, we drafted a bill to create an 18-month window after marriage in which a new spouse’s income would not count when determining eligibility — a “honeymoon” period. This income disregard was modeled on an existing statute that addressed child support for children on MFIP. Due to constitutional concerns related to marriage-incentive programs, we consciously chose to structure the bill in a way that would allow couples to choose to marry rather than reward those who married.

Making the Pitch

In seeking bill sponsors (and later other supporters), we spoke about the benefits of marriage to children and the challenges to couples that wanted to marry but knew the very real financial impact this would have on their families. We shared that the federal TANF Program, which is used to fund MFIP, specifically lists two marriage-related goals: to promote marriage and to reduce the number of children born out of wedlock.

We provided data from a joint American Enterprise Institute/Los Angeles Times study in which people in poverty were asked: “How often do you think unmarried adults chose not to get married to avoid losing welfare benefits?” Twenty-four percent of participants answered, “almost always,” and an additional 23 percent answered, “often.”

We also gave legislators highlighted copies of a 2009 study of the federal TANF program that showed participation in the TANF program had a negative effect on the probability of marriage, an effect that disappeared once participants moved off the program.

In building strong bipartisan support for the legislation, we addressed some concerns along the way. For example, we made it clear that we were not judging single parents but instead creating a viable option for couples who wanted to be married. We also clarified that nothing in the bill would trap a parent in a relationship that was dangerous for the parent or children.

Our House author identified a concern we hadn’t anticipated: Should the state allow continued participation in the MFIP program if a participant marries a middle- or upper-class individual? We addressed this by amending the bill to include a cap on the income disregard, set at 275 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, the standard used to determine whether pregnant women and children are eligible for Medicaid.

In both chambers, the bill passed unanimously and was included in an omnibus bill signed by our governor. Ultimately, the bill had to be amended to provide an income disregard for twelve months instead of the original 18. This change was unfortunate given that, ideally, this honeymoon period would last two or three years. Despite this amendment, the new law will likely make a significant impact by removing an obstacle to marriage for low-income households in our state.

Reigniting the Marriage Discussion

The legislation won’t become effective until later in 2018. But we hope it will allow low-income couples in Minnesota to marry at the time they feel it is best for them and their children, creating both financial and emotional stability for their families. Further, we hope that it helps make marriage more present in social-policy conversations about reducing poverty.

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