WASHINGTON (Sept. 7, 2015) – At a time when marriage rates are down in the United States and across the West, a new R Street Institute study shows cohabitating parents receiving means-tested social-welfare benefits could see their household income drop by as much as 32 percent if they were to marry.

While Congress has taken steps to reform many so-called marriage penalties within the U.S. tax code, there remain significant problems for couples who rely on welfare and other social safety net programs, R Street Associate Fellows Douglas J. Besharov and Neil Gilbert conclude. In “Marriage penalties in the modern social-welfare state,” the authors outline the financial disincentives to marriage faced by individuals and couples who rely upon means-tested programs for help with their everyday lives.

“The current system encourages cohabitation at the cost of marriage, while also creating inequities that long have been deemed unacceptable in the tax code,” the authors wrote. “Analysts on the both the left and right believe that, all things being equal, getting and staying married is the most effective way to avoid poverty and the best way to raise children.”

The authors propose some possible steps the government can take to neutralize marriage penalties, such as eliminating sudden cliffs, which create a total loss of benefits in some mean-tested programs.

The study is being released in conjunction with a joint project between R Street and the Urban Institute, which takes a more detailed dive into the calculations of the loss of benefits under several different scenarios.

“While we believe marriage in general is a social good, the prudent policy for government is neutrality,” the authors wrote. “The issue here is not how government could be encouraging marriage, but rather that government should get out of the way of the institution altogether by minimizing marriage penalties.”


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