In the typhoon of congressional brinksmanship we’ve witnessed this week, one detail caught my eye that could easily have been lost in the gales. A group of 35 Republican senators signed a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden about an aspect of the House reconciliation bill that they find disturbing.
We were disappointed to learn that in some instances the House of Representatives’ reconciliation bill creates harmful penalties for marriage. . .
As you know, current marriage penalties occur when a household’s overall tax bill increases due to a couple marrying and filing taxes jointly. . . Unfortunately, despite its original rollout as part of the “American Families Plan,” the current draft of the reconciliation bill takes an existing marriage penalty in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and makes it significantly worse. This is not the only marriage penalty created or worsened by the partisan bill.
For the record, I think this objection is completely sound. If there’s one thing the social science literature is virtually unanimous about, it’s that two parents are better than one. And while marriage isn’t essential to ensuring that a child grows up in a stable home—some cohabiting parents stay together for decades and some single-parents provide very stable homes—the association is extremely strong. Anyone concerned about child poverty needs to be concerned about marriage. Kids who grow up in two-parent families have a poverty rate of 7.5 percent, compared with 36.5 percent of those raised in single-parent homes.
It’s not just poverty. Kids raised in stable homes without a revolving door of new adult partners for their parents and new step-siblings (actual or de facto) for themselves are healthier physically and psychologically. They are less likely to struggle in school, get in trouble with the law, engage in risky behaviors, or get depressed and commit suicide. The United States has the dubious distinction of having more children living with only one adult (23 percent) than any other nation on Earth. A Pew survey of 130 countries found that the global average is 7 percent.
This link between marriage and good outcomes for children is so robust that scholars across the political divide agree on it, though they may differ on what to do about it, or about whether it is even possible to do anything about the growing percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes.
Government efforts to encourage marriage, such as those undertaken by the George W. Bush administration, were well-intentioned flops. They included funding for programs that offered counseling for new mothers on the virtues of marriage as well as couples’ therapy and PSAs featuring celebrities. The divorce/unwed parenting numbers didn’t respond. (Divorce has been trending down since its peak in 1980, but the percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes has not decreased due to the rise of unwed childbearing.)
The government’s failure to affect matrimony should surprise exactly no one. For one thing, the programs didn’t last long, but that’s probably for the best. A behavior as complex as choosing whether or not to marry is unlikely to be affected by government encouragement. It’s the same with other behaviors. Remember the “President’s Challenge” to eat healthy and exercise more? That was another Bush initiative. These hortatory programs have a long pedigree. President Eisenhower founded the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in 1956. Rates of obesity have stubbornly increased in every decade since.
This is not to say that we should throw up our hands. Cultural change happens all the time. Just consider how much we’ve been able to curb drunk driving over the past 25 years due to changing mores and the activism of civil society groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
But there is one huge thing the government can do: stop making things worse. Every tax or safety net-related marriage penalty should be sand-blasted out of the code. The Republican senators are completely right about this. If it means the programs cost more, so be it. It’s worth it.
This is precisely the kind of perspective we need a healthy conservative party to advance. We need a party that is focused on the importance of the mediating institutions in society—families, churches, schools, and community organizations—rather than simply on individuals and government. This is too frequently a blind spot for Democrats.
But today’s Republican party has forfeited the benefit of the doubt. You need a certain moral standing to be taken seriously on matters like the marriage penalty. You rely on voters to believe that you are at least partly motivated by good policy. But when Sen. Mitch McConnell cynically filibusters a bill to raise the debt ceiling to cover bills his party helped to rack up; when Republicans open their ranks to the likes of Representatives Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, and Margery Taylor Greene; when the party thwarts basic public health measures like vaccines and masks; and when the party closes ranks around Trump by blocking an independent commission to investigate the January 6 riot, well, people will doubt your bona fides.
Republicans are also endangering our democracy with their embrace of Trump’s election fraud fantasy. That’s the most urgent threat. But it’s also a loss for this country that the Republican party is discrediting conservatism, because we can’t do without it.