The Corner


The Federal CARES Act Shouldn’t Penalize Marriage


The coronavirus pandemic underlines a truth forgotten by many on the left and the right: The government and market can only do so much in dark and desperate times. As the plague spreads, the stock market tanks, and jobs disappear, Americans will be forced to turn more and more to their families for help. Families headed by married parents — because they have access to more potential income streams, not to mention more heads, hands, and hearts — will weather the crisis more successfully and be better able to help others outside their circle than will other families.

It’s for that reason that the emerging federal cash bailout, which could top $500 billion and is designed to shore up the finances of lower- and middle-income families, should not penalize marriage. Too many of today’s means-tested programs — such as Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) — often end up penalizing marriage among lower-income families. These penalties fall particularly hard on working-class Americans, with one study showing that more than 70 percent of American families with incomes in the second and third quintile facing such penalties. That’s a problem because studies suggest these penalties reduce the odds that couples with children tie the knot.

That’s why the federal relief package — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — working its way through Congress right now should take a page from plans by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and by Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.). Both plans end up doubling the threshold for married families, compared to single-parent families, which means that their approaches to helping lower- and middle-income families do not end up penalizing marriage, unlike so many of our current federal welfare programs. For instance, Hawley’s bill begins to phase cash assistance out at $50,000 for singles and $100,000 for marrieds, thereby minimizing the chance this assistance would make marriage costly for working families.

Senate and White House negotiators working on the CARES Act are finalizing this relief package’s thresholds for single and married Americans. They should follow Cotton and Hawley’s lead and demand this landmark legislation does not end up discouraging marriage by failing to double the threshold for cash assistance for married couples.

Given the importance of strong families in navigating tough times, here’s hoping the federal relief package that emerges this week doesn’t end up undercutting one of the most important bulwarks of economic security: marriage.

W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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