Policy Initiatives for Addressing the Family Stability Divide

In light of Brad Wilcox’s recent remarks about public policy and the family stability divide, it’s worth revisiting the 2011 Brookings policy brief he co-authored with Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round. In it, Cherlin and Wilcox outline an ambitious, and expensive, domestic policy agenda designed to strengthen family stability among low- and moderately-skilled Americans, including:

1. Though the labor market position of low-skilled workers has steadily deteriorated, Cherlin and Wilcox observe that there appears to be demand for middle-skill jobs, i.e., jobs that entail non-routine tasks and that demand some specialized postsecondary education training beyond a high school diploma, but not necessarily a four-year college degree. Drawing on the apparent success of the Career Academies initiative in improving earnings and family stability for those who took part, they propose a broader effort to increase training for middle-skill jobs.

2. They propose eliminating or at least reducing the marriage penalty in the EITC. The most straightforward way to do this would be to tie the EITC to individuals rather than households. They also suggest making the EITC more generous for childless workers.

3. Recognizing the sharp decline in marriage among the moderately-educated, Cherlin and Wilcox propose a social marketing campaign designed to “underline the ways in which children benefit from having parents who are not only married to one another but also actively working on maintaining a healthy, highquality relationship,” building on the success of social marketing campaigns against smoking and drunk driving. 

4. Cherlin and Wilcox back an expansion of the child tax credit to $3,000, and they also favor making it fully refundable. Over a ten-year time horizon, the making the current CTC ($1,000) fully refundable would cost $110 billion relative to current law. I hope to find out more about how much the Cherlin and Wilcox proposal would cost, and how it might impact work incentives. If nothing else, an expansion of this magnitude would presumably reduce reliance on various other transfer programs.

(It is worth noting that expansion Cherlin and Wilcox have in mind is quite different from the recent proposal from Utah Sen. Mike Lee, which creates a new child tax credit designed to offset income and payroll taxes while retaining the existing child tax credit. It would be more generous to households with little or no payroll tax liability. The Tax Policy Center recently observed that while 43 percent of tax units have no federal income tax liability, only 14.4 percent have no payroll tax liability, and most of this latter group consists of elderly individuals (9.7 percent of all tax units). Of course, Lee’s new child tax credit does less for households with very low levels of payroll tax liability (e.g., those paying less than $2,500 in payroll taxes) than for those with somewhat higher levels of payroll tax liability. Lee’s credit doesn’t phase-out for high-earners. The CRFB reports that eliminating the phase-out for the current child tax credit would cost $110 billion over ten years relative to current law and current policy. But the benefits for high-income individuals are curbed under Lee’s tax reform by the lower threshold for the top marginal tax rate (35 percent) and the elimination or reform of various tax expenditures that primarily benefit high-earners.)

5. Cherlin and Wilcox also favor increased spending on preschool.

6. And finally, and most intriguingly, Cherlin and Wilcox tentatively advance the idea of reforming divorce laws, a step that would presumably be very controversial:

Among the options that states should experiment with are the following: mandatory one-year waiting periods for couples with children, divorce education that alerts couples with children to the risks that divorce poses to their children, optional programs for couples who express an interest in reconciliation, and legal reforms that would allow judges to factor in breaches of the marital contract in making determinations about child custody and property division. None of these reforms would eliminate divorce as an option for troubled couples or spouses, nor should they. Instead, they would slow down the process of dissolution, provide an off-ramp for couples interested in reconciling, and invest the marriage contract with more weight than it currently enjoys.

This reminds me of Cherlin’s observation that the relative advantage of marriage over cohabitation is that it provides more “enforceable trust” — raising the cost of marriage might increase its perceived value as a source of stability. Another possibility, however, is that marriage will seem more daunting, and thus less attractive. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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