Donald Trump’s decades-old idea to fix welfare: Get more people to marry

For love or welfare.
For love or welfare.
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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Donald Trump presented this week a nine-point plan to boost US economic mobility and reform the welfare system. According to the White House website, the proposed reforms “will restore independence and dignity to millions of Americans,” which typically means putting welfare recipients to work.

The plan lays out nine core principles: The first promises to “improve employment outcomes and economic independence.” The second is more of a surprise: “Promote marriage and family as a way of escaping poverty.”

Trump’s plan—so far presented only as a high-level overview, without detailed measures—is anchored on the same principles that informed the Clinton administration’s landmark 1996 welfare reform, which reshaped the US welfare system. Both plans promote employment, emphasize having fewer children outside of wedlock, and push marriage as a path out of poverty.

Marriage has traditionally been connected with social benefits. Married people are less likely to live in poverty (in particular, married women see a great reduction in rates of poverty), and so are children who live with married parents. Communities with high rates of marriage tend to be wealthier and healthier, experience lower crime rates, and higher general wellbeing.

It makes sense that the government wants to see more weddings: The more that individuals take care of one another (and their children), the less the government has to take care of them. But try as it might, the government has not been able to actually do anything to promote marriage for quite some time; five years after the 1996 reform bill, marriage rates were lower and more children were born out of wedlock.

Rates of marriage in the US have been falling ever since, and the number of US children born out of wedlock has risen.

Marriage appears to be an increasingly antiquated institution—which makes it a poor solution to contemporary economic and social problems, 20 years after the Clinton bill. More people cohabit, fewer marry, and marriages happen later in life, reflecting attitudes that have been shifting for quite some time.

Trump’s reform likely draws on a view widely held by conservatives, that the welfare system actually encourages Americans to stay single: Unmarried individuals (particularly single parents, who are overwhelmingly mothers) are more likely to be eligible for benefits. This is a belief that has been found to have some grounds, though not long-term: When in dire financial straits, people who depend on welfare have been shown somewhat more likely to avoid marriage; however, they are more likely to marry once their financial conditions improve.