- Most studies suggest that marriage penalties are associated with lower rates of marriage and higher rates of cohabitation, and may be particularly salient for Americans without a college degree and those with young children. Tweet This
- “The government should not penalize me for trying to do better,” Ashley told me. Tweet This
A few years ago, I attended the wedding of a couple who were forgoing civil marriage for financial reasons. They wanted to be married in the eyes of God, but a legal marriage would mean that the woman, a working single mom with diabetes, would no longer be eligible for Medicaid, which would render her unable to afford her insulin and supplies. Since then, I’ve heard several of my married neighbors with children half-joke that they should get divorced (in name only) in order to qualify for the government assistance that they could get as single mothers.
Research shows that a substantial number of poor, working-class, and lower middle-class people could be affected by these types of marriage penalties in the welfare system, with the largest penalties existing for those who make between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. Although research is mixed as to how much this affects decisionmaking, most studies suggest that marriage penalties are associated with lower rates of marriage and higher rates of cohabitation, and may be particularly salient for Americans without a college degree and those with young children.1
Ashley and Ryan are one such engaged couple, living in southwestern Ohio. They are getting married this month, but they worry about losing Medicaid coverage and SNAP benefits, as well as rent increases in Ashley’s public housing. Ashley’s work delivering pizzas combined with Ryan’s job at a local recycling plant puts them in the income range that is particularly vulnerable to a marriage penalty.
Ashley and Ryan started talking on Facebook earlier last year after mutual friends introduced them. One of the earliest things he told her was that he wasn’t looking to just date or have fun. He wanted to find someone to marry. After two previous long-term relationships that stalled when it became clear that the guy had no plans to propose marriage, Ashley was relieved to find a guy like Ryan. Unlike others she’d dated, he does not experiment with drugs or even smoke pot. He has kept the same job for several years now and makes about $16 an hour. He, too, has been in failed serious relationships, losing custody of his kids after the breakups, and he wants the real thing this time around. “The old-fashioned way,” he told my husband David and I months later, while we were out to dinner on a double date. He said that from early on he knew that he and Ashley both wanted something similar: to get married, get a house, and have a baby.
The proposal was momentous for Ashley, though casual: a conversation one November night. Ryan kept repeating the question, as if he couldn’t really believe her answer the first time. They were giddy, taking the kind of lovestruck selfies that people do when they are mesmorized by each other and oblivious to most everything else. They set a wedding date for May. When Ashley got pregnant, they moved the date up to the end of January.
“With me being pregnant, I didn’t want to have another kid out of wedlock,” she told me, something she has done twice before with two different men. She explained she hates the way his father’s absence affects her teenage son. In the last decade or so, she has noticed a change in attitudes about having kids outside of marriage: when she gave birth to her oldest son, she felt judged, but not anymore. It’s so common to not be married and have kids that it just seems normal, she told me. Her decision to get married with this pregnancy has less to do with fear of being judged by others, and more to do with judgments she has made based on her life experience. “Marriage is still a higher commitment,” she added.
Ryan’s parents recently celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary. “I always wanted what my mom and dad had,” he said. “Just seeing how a happy marriage was supposed to be…. Being faithful, loyal. Building a bond.”
As for the potential cost, Ashley is worried, but also resigned. “I’m going to have to get off of assistance at some point anyway. If it happens, it happens, and I’ll figure it out,” she said. “Always have.”
Ryan agrees with her. “Don’t let [money] stop you from getting to your goal. If you love that person, just do it,” he said. “In the end, it will work out. You just got to take it day by day.”
For them, love is not a thing to be calculated, and marriage is not a monetary matter. Yet, the cost hurts. “The government should not penalize me for trying to do better,” Ashley told me.
I am humbled by Ashley’s determination to get married regardless of the financial stresses she faces, and I admire her belief in marriage as a good thing for her unborn child, as well as for herself and her soon-to-be husband.
What are the alternatives? In his October 2019 post on this blog, Willis Krumholz suggests increasing the safety-net eligibility threshold for poor and working-class married couples. A similar approach in the tax code has eliminated marriage penalties for most upper-income families. Other ideas, including detailed recommendations for reform for many of the largest tax and means-transfer programs, are outlined in a new report by IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox and published by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Ryan and Ashley said they like the idea of a graduated phaseout, or a grace period in which they would still qualify for a program but are given advance notice—say a year—of the end date. “Because then, you’ve got that date set to where you can build that plan, go over options, talk to outside insurance companies,” Ryan explained. Ashley likes the idea because she doesn’t want to rely on means-transfer programs for the long term. “I do understand that I need to get off all assistance,” she said. “But as of right now, I still need the help.”
Ashley thinks it would be helpful to have a social worker in the county office whose job it was to help people get off of welfare—a person she could call when she had questions (instead of the answering service and callbacks from some anonymous social worker she gets now). Ryan thinks that a Health Savings Account could be part of the preparation for people looking to transition off of Medicaid. He had one in the past that was partially matched by an employer, and it felt good seeing his savings build.
In the weeks since I first talked with Ashley about the stress she felt over possibly losing benefits, she quit her job at the pizza restaurant. She old me that being in her first trimester of pregnancy, she was just too sick to get out of bed in the morning. Instead, she signed up to become an InstaCart driver in the afternoons, which, so far, is not paying well.
Though she did not say this, I wonder if another factor was that her work was devalued by impending marriage penaltes. Being pregnant and in the first trimester myself, I know how difficult it is to get out of bed when dealing with morning sickness. It would be even more difficult if I knew that the work I was sacrificing to do essentially meant that I’d be disqualified from Medicaid and food stamps. It’s a demoralizing feeling I’ve heard others describe: that just as you are starting to get stable, some of the key supports stop, and although you are working harder, even getting a raise, you are penalized rather than rewarded.
The silver lining in Ashley’s underemployment is that the marriage penalties she and Ryan face will be fewer. Whether or not they take any comfort in that is tough to say. A few months ago, the couple was dreaming about a honeymoon to Gatlinburg. But due to unpaid bills, those plans have long since been dismissed in unspoken agreement. Any wedding gift money will now go towards catching up on bills.
This makes me sad, mostly because I keep comparing their experience to my own—a wedding my parents paid for right after I graduated college, a two-week honeymoon after that, and stable jobs lined up for when we came home. But I am also humbled by Ashley’s determination to get married regardless of the financial stresses she faces, and I admire her belief in marriage as a good thing for her unborn child, as well as for herself and her soon-to-be husband.
“I’ve always said I want to get married and stay married,” she recently told me. “I don’t want no divorce. And he’s always said the same thing. He’s like, you’re not going to be able to divorce me. There’s no way.”
A honeymoon is a lovely way to start a marriage, but it is not essential to its meaning. The spillover effects of stress to marriage are real. But Ashley’s comment about commitment cuts to the heart. She knows what she is doing and why. Let’s hope that needed reforms will soon mean that such marital commitment is no longer undermined but supported by our welfare system.
1. Brad Wilcox, Chris Gersten, and Jerry Regier, “Marriage Penalties in Means-Tested Tax and Transfer Programs,” Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, January 2020,