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Utah Sen. Mike Lee says Congress must undo policies that penalize marriage

A new Joint Economic Committee report ponders the demise of “happy two-parent” homes and how to stop the trend.

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Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, questions former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

Greg Nash, The Hill via Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Children raised in homes where their parents are happily married are more likely to do well across a wide swath of measures, from academic achievement to less criminal activity to future prosperity and good health.

They also have better relationships with their parents — especially their fathers — and are less likely to suffer abuse or exhibit aggressive behavior, compared to children raised in less stable environments, according to a Social Capital Project report published by the Joint Economic Committee, called “The Demise of the Happy Two-Parent Home.

But U.S. policies sometimes penalize married couples and those should be changed, according to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who chairs the committee.

“The data tell us that the single biggest indicator of a child’s success across a wide spectrum of metrics involves whether that child has been raised by two parents. Typically, that is more likely to happen in a marriage than outside of a marriage relationship,” Lee said, though he noted other factors also contribute to a child’s healthy future.

He called the report an “opportunity to generate ideas about where we might be doing harm as a government,” including looking at social policies that penalize couples for being married. His list includes safety net benefit programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit and others.

The report says roughly 45% of American children grow up in homes where by late adolescence at least one biological parent is absent. That’s up from a third in the 1960s and 20%-25% of children in the 1950s. American families are now less stable, with more children “born into or raised outside of intact families,” it said.

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Social Capital Project analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data

In 1970, the report states, 85% of children lived with two parents, compared with 70% in 2019, when close to 10% lived with a divorced single parent and nearly 15% with a parent who never married. Divorce has declined overall, as many couples cohabit instead of marrying. Research shows cohabiting relationships in the United States are less stable than marriages.

Meanwhile, fewer women of childbearing age are married, and women with low levels of education are more likely to raise their children as single parents, which contributes to family instability and economic inequality.

Marriage is more likely among couples who are well-educated and wealthier, said Jennifer Glass, executive director of the Council on Contemporary Families and a professor at University of Texas at Austin.

The question is whether marriage itself makes the difference. Some, like Lee, believe the institution of marriage itself matters, while others say it’s what being married brings to children that makes the difference, such as parents’ combined incomes to run one household and other resources. Because marriage is more common with highly educated people, the couples’ traits may account for some of the advantage attributed to marriage.

Lee believes the “happy” part matters. “A child’s outcome is not going to be helped if raised in a home that is not happy.”

Even though nonmarital births have risen and more children are raised outside of marriage compared to the past, some troubling youth outcomes have actually improved, including teenage pregnancy, and alcohol and substance abuse among youths.

“I don’t deny the benefits of a good marriage. Having two collaborating, concerned parents in the home is an advantage,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of numerous books on marriage and family life and a professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. “But the issue is more complicated than this report contends.”

Where experts diverge

“There’s not much dispute that everyone wants families to be whole and happy and that kids benefit from multiple caregivers,” said Glass. The question, she added, is how to achieve it.

Most American adults see great value in marriage and would like to marry one day. The American Family Survey, a collaboration between the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, consistently finds the public holds marriage in high esteem, though most married adults believe their own marriages are stronger than marriages overall. American adults, in fact, are more pessimistic about family life in general than actual data warrant.

While experts say children benefit from having multiple caring adults in their lives and from having more resources to keep them out of poverty, they may not agree on marriage’s role in social trends.

Many social challenges have been going in the right direction, Coontz said: Teens and young adults born in the 1980s and later “have been doing better than their counterparts born in the 1950s and 1960s, the high point of births to married couples. Teen childbearing has fallen to all-time lows as the age of sexual initiation has been rising since 1992. Alcohol and drug abuse among youth are also lower now than in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Coontz said juvenile crime dropped more than 60% between 1994 and 2013, even while births outside of marriage was climbing. Similar trends are true of teen homicide, Coontz added. “So let’s not blame recent rises in violence during the social and economic crises associated with this pandemic on the decline in marriage rates that has occurred over the past 40 years.”

Lee said positive trends should be celebrated, regardless of their causes and he agrees marriage isn’t the only factor. But he told the Deseret News married couples should not be penalized through policy, either.

“We can reform our social safety nets so that families are not punished for being married. Under current law, a working family participating in programs like Medicaid, food stamps or housing assistance might face thousands of dollars in penalties if they get married,” Lee said. “We’re essentially paying working families to not get married and that needs to stop.”

He said Congress can change the tax code so working families that qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit aren’t penalized for marrying. He’d support making the child tax credit more generous for married couples, “an issue where I was able to see some progress on that front when we reformed the tax code in 2017, by increasing the child tax credit.” 

Lee said he’d also like to see career prospects for young people, especially young men, improve. The report lauds the potential of “Career Academies” that provide academic, career and technical education inside high schools, with a focus on jobs that need workers within local communities.

How kids benefit

One of the congressional committee report’s authors, congressional staffer Scott Winship, tweeted there are not clear answers on how many children would have been better off — and by how much —  if their parents were married. Children cannot be randomly assigned into households where some parents are happily married, some not or where parents are not married to see how their children fare.

But he noted that “even if it’s hard to determine whether kids would do better if their unhappy parents stay together, it is close to self-evident (and uncontroversial?) that kids do better being raised by two parents, happily married.”

The report noted an Austrian study that found some children had worse educational, employment and health outcomes after their fathers started affairs with co-workers and their parents divorced. Although the report cites the presence of more women in the workplace as contributing, the point was that divorce worsened children’s outcomes, Lee said.

“The researchers were not trying to make a normative judgment at all about men and women in the workplace, so much as they were commenting on where people who have an affair tend to meet, the implication being that in other eras, people who had affairs, met somewhere else,” he said.

The report also cited research showing that seeing Black fathers in their neighborhood has positive impact on Black children, even if the father is not their own. Those children didn’t get similar gains from seeing white fathers or Black men who are childless.

An earlier committee report, The Wealth of Relations, noted specific benefits for children of happily married parents, compared to children of single parents. They see both parents daily, don’t alternate holidays with each parent, live with one set of household rules, enjoy the benefits of economies of scale and don’t face adjusting to remarriages and family blending, among others.

In a recent presentation at the American Enterprise Institute, University of Virginia sociologist and institute scholar W. Bradford Wilcox, who runs the National Marriage Project, cited research on other benefits of a solid marriage:

  • “Very happily married” couples are five times more likely to be very happy overall than those who are unmarried.
  • Children raised in “nonintact homes” are two to three times more apt to experience serious negative outcomes than those raised by their married parents. For example, the odds of incarceration for males by age 30 is more than twice as high for those in single-parent homes, compared to those in intact homes.
  • Teens whose parents cohabit are 60% less likely to get a high school diploma, compared to teens in intact, married families.
  • 15.7% of school-age children in cohabiting households experience serious emotional problems. For peers in intact, married families, the share is 3.5%.
  • Girls are far less likely to be pregnant as teens if their dads remain in the family home.

Economist Adam Thomas and Future of Children senior editor Isabel Sawhill reported average incomes of single-parent households is about 37% of the incomes of married-parent households, while cohabiting-parents households were 61%.

Forging family stability

The report suggests a number of policy changes that could be considered to boost marriage and strengthen families, Lee said.

They include messaging that says family stability matters to children’s well-being and why. Some experts lament that while people with high educational attainment generally reap the benefits of stable marriage, they don’t spread the word to others who might follow their example.

Social programs could help people “prepare for, build and maintain healthy marriages and families,” the report says. In some communities, that has included programs aimed at preventing teenage pregnancy, but when programs venture into sex education, they can become controversial, the report warned, adding most comprehensive sex education programs are ineffective.

Safety net reform that provides financial incentives are believed more effective at increasing family stability. “Opportunities along these lines include safety net reforms to reduce marriage penalties and otherwise discourage family instability, providing additional tax benefits for married couples and strengthening child support enforcement,” the report said

Options could also include bumping up income limits or being more generous in disregarding spousal earnings to qualify for those benefits, though the report calls out the increased cost and possible greater dependence on such safety nets as potential downsides.

Marriage penalties currently exist in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, where married-couple families are required to work more hours than single parents to receive benefits, the report said. Another example is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has different benefit schedules for single and married tax filers, which on average offers more benefit for single filers, though not in every case. One option noted in the report is going beyond rectifying the penalty to create a marriage “bonus.” Similarly, the Child Tax Credit could be made more generous for married couples, it added.

While some programs seem to penalize marriage, Glass pointed out that many other laws and policies benefit married people more than other people.