Marital poverty is a serious, widespread, but mostly unacknowledged problem in the United States. Just over 9.3 million people in married-parent families live below our extremely low official poverty line. Another 6 million people live between the official poverty threshold and 130 percent of the poverty line, which is the income limit for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and only about $26,000 for a married couple with one child.
Despite these staggering numbers, there is widespread denial of the reality of marital poverty. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has gone so far to claim that being “married with kids versus unmarried with kids is the difference between living in poverty and not.” It appears he is unaware there are more married parents living in poverty in his state than never married parents living in poverty.
We know from a vast body of research that poverty and related financial stressors are risk factors for marital conflict, domestic violence, and divorce. And notable recent research by Laura Tach and Kathryn Edin found that economic factors are a more important predictor of dissolution for married parents than for cohabiting ones.
The Temporary Assistance (TANF) program should be playing a central role in helping married families overcome the kinds of economic hardship and other factors that contribute to the high divorce rate among working class families. Under the Temporary Assistance program, states receive funds to provide means-tested, re-employment assistance and other services to struggling unemployed and underemployed parents with low incomes. One of the four purposes of Temporary Assistance is to “encourage the maintenance of two-parent families.”
Despite this mandate, Temporary Assistance is failing struggling, married families. The extent of TANF’s failure is shown in the chart below. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of married parents living in poverty increased 39 percent, but the already extremely low number of married parents being helped by TANF plummeted by 54 percent. In the majority of states today, fewer than 1000 married parents receive Temporary Assistance. In Louisiana, for example, over 50,000 married parents live in poverty, but only about 50 of them receive Temporary Assistance.
Where Temporary Assistance has failed, other better-designed programs have stepped up. In 2014, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helped 5.2 million low-income children who lived with both of their married parents, and another 1.2 million children who lived with both of their unmarried parents. Unlike Temporary Assistance, SNAP actually responded to the increase in married-parent unemployment and hardship during the Great Recession. Similarly, early evidence suggests that the Affordable Care Act—including Medicaid expansion and the Premium Tax Credit—has increased health insurance coverage among working-class married families.
How can we fix Temporary Assistance so that it doesn’t effectively exclude millions of struggling, married parents from getting the temporary financial help – as well as employment and other services – that could make the difference between staying together and splitting up?
The first and arguably most important step is to acknowledge the extent of the problem of marital poverty and hardship in the United States, and the destructive impact it has on family life.
Then we need to look at models for reforming Temporary Assistance. Most notably, the original version of the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) that was evaluated in the mid-1990s reduced divorce among participating disadvantaged, two-parent families. The reductions in divorce were particularly large—70 percent—among black married couples. In addition, both MFIP and Milwaukee’s New Hope Project increased rates of marriage among disadvantaged single mothers.
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These progressive demonstration projects ensured that low-income married- and cohabiting-couple families had an adequate income to support themselves while searching for work or addressing issues that limited their work capacity, including through transitional jobs, re-employment, and other services. Unlike the current Temporary Assistance program, these programs did not utilize unreasonably restrictive participation rates or harshly punitive measures that are mostly aimed at reducing the number of people who receive help; instead, these programs emphasized helping parents obtain and maintain stable employment, while meeting their basic needs.
Unfortunately, the current financial structure of Temporary Assistance and the federal law that governs it makes operating rigorously tested programs like the original MFIP or New Hope all but impossible for states. Fixing this should be at the top of the list of reforms that would help struggling, two-parent families. At the very least, the federal government should establish a national Temporary Assistance demonstration project for married and unmarried two-parent families based on the original MFIP program and New Hope. Of course, some policymakers would prefer to just talk about family values, but even in today’s polarized political environment it should be possible to move forward on a concrete initiative like this one that actually values working-class families by helping them stay together.