Encouraging marriage in the fight against poverty

Each year, the federal government provides a block grant to the states called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This grant allows states each to design and to implement their own programs for those struggling in poverty, as long as the programs seek one of the following goals:

  • Provide assistance to needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes;
  • Reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage;
  • Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and/or
  • Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

Here in Michigan, the cash assistance program that flows from federal TANF funding is the Family Independence Program (FIP). FIP’s goal is maintaining and strengthening family life for children and their parents or caretakers, providing up to 48 months of temporary assistance for expenses such as rent, utilities or food. The program also helps families attain self-sufficiency. From October 2016 to September 2017, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services reported an average of 48,120 individuals received FIP benefits each month.

As the Family Independence Program seeks to strengthen family life and encourage self-sufficiency, it is important to recognize a critical tool for moving families out of poverty articulated in the TANF goals: marriage. Marriage provides stability to the couple and their children, and research has shown that marriage can improve emotional and physical health as well as financial outcomes for husbands, wives, and their children.

Unfortunately, eligibility requirements for Michigan’s FIP — and programs in other states — can be a disincentive to marriage. When a person receiving benefits marries, their spouse’s income is factored into the eligibility calculation. If their total income is above the required level, benefits can be immediately eliminated or reduced. This change might be difficult financially for couples starting married life, especially for lower-income couples, and it may lead to individuals delaying or foregoing marriage.

A 2016 survey by the American Enterprise Institute and the Los Angeles Times asked 1,202 adults, including 235 in poverty, how often they thought unmarried adults chose not to marry to avoid losing welfare benefits. Forty-seven percent of those in poverty — and 54 percent of the respondents overall — answered that it happens frequently, responding either with “almost always” or “often.” Similarly, almost one-third of Americans 18 to 60 years old stated they personally knew someone who has not married for fear of losing their benefits, according to an American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies 2016 report.

In June 2017, Minnesota enacted a new law to prevent couples from having to choose between marriage and retaining needed assistance. The measure allows the state to “disregard” a new spouse’s income for FIP eligibility, up to a certain income level, for one year. The Michigan Catholic Conference has strongly advocated for the adoption of a similar policy in this state, and in January, Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) introduced Senate Bill 752. Similar to the Minnesota law, the measure excludes a new spouse’s income when determining eligibility for FIP assistance and would provide a grace period of 18 months. The only time a spouse’s income would not be disregarded is if the household income exceeded 275 percent of the federal poverty level, the existing Medicaid eligibility standard.

Paul A. Long

Paul A. Long

This legislation is an opportunity both to promote marriage and to help struggling families. If a disincentive to marriage is removed among FIP recipients, more individuals might see marriage as a viable option, not a barrier, to changing their economic status. Additionally, by encouraging parents to raise children in a married household, there is an opportunity to demonstrate the value and security of marriage for children and potentially break the cycle of poverty. These goals, and others that strengthen families and marriages, are worth striving for in our state.

Paul A. Long is president and CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in this state.