When conservatives lament the many ways in which the U.S. welfare system discourages marriage and family formation, it’s usually large-scale federal welfare programs such as public housing or the Earned Income Tax Credit that come to mind. 

Most people probably would not think that state-based welfare programs also contribute to anti-marriage bias, but as our recent Heritage Foundation Backgrounder shows, that’s exactly the case. 

In reality, glaring examples of severe penalties to marriage are even found in seemingly innocuous and unexceptional state-level preschool programs.

Twenty-six state-level preschool programs contain penalties that discourage marriage. The vast majority of those programs will allow a single mother to send her child to preschool free of charge, but eliminate the entire preschool benefit if she marries a man of equal or even lower income. 

Unlike the tax code, where the brackets for married couples filing jointly are double those of single-filers, these programs only raise the threshold by a small amount for married couples, meaning that a family stands to lose all of its benefits if spouses earn similar incomes (or if one is close to the threshold and the other makes virtually any income at all). That means that a couple who wish to marry must decide whether they are willing to lose out on thousands of dollars in preschool program benefits for their children, benefits they would have obtained if they remained single. 

State-subsidized preschool programs largely failed to deliver high-quality education to underserved children, but to make matters even worse, most states’ government-funded preschool programs make marriage thousands of dollars more expensive for those who have children or want to start a family.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that liberal states such as California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon have neglected to defend marriage from bad welfare-program design.

But what is surprising is just how many conservative-leaning states have preschool programs that penalize marriage. For example, in Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah, a woman making $20,000 to $33,000 per year would be able to send her child to preschool free of charge, but if she marries a man making as little as $23,000 per year, she would lose the subsidy entirely, making the cost as much as $5,000 per year. 

Because of this program structure, a typical working-class couple is incentivized to remain unmarried and raise their children as single parents in order to retain their preschool benefits. 

In Arizona, Louisiana, and Ohio, meanwhile, a single mother of two making $45,000 per year can receive free preschool, while a couple each making $28,000 per year must pay the full cost, as much as $10,000 per year. In Arkansas, a couple with income of $35,000 each would pay more than $6,000 for preschool if married, but pay nothing if they remained unmarried.

Alabama and Kentucky have significant marriage penalties for low-income and working-class families, as well.  And conservatives in “purple” states such as Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have not successfully avoided marriage penalties in their preschool programs, either. 

Conservatives, especially those in red states, should lead the way in eliminating marriage penalties in subsidized preschool programs. If state lawmakers are going to subsidize preschool, they should replace all-or-nothing benefit structures with a sliding-fee schedule or benefit phaseout, so that the subsidy is gradually reduced as income rises.

Such a design will reduce the cost of preschool programs and eliminate the sharp penalties to marriage and work that come from all-or-nothing welfare programs. In turn, savings can be used to ensure that program thresholds treat married couples fairly, so that a recipient does not stand to lose out on benefits simply because he or she marries someone of less or equal income. 

Federal, state, and local governments operate more than 40 means-tested programs for families with children, spending more than $500 billion per year providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and targeted social services to low-income families. Nearly all of these means-tested programs impose substantial marriage penalties on low-income couples.

While state preschool programs are only a small component of the overall penalization of marriage in the welfare system, this would be an important step in the right direction that could be used as a model for reforming the many other anti-marriage components of the modern welfare system.

Marriage is the foundation of our society, but it has been declining in America for decades, particularly among our country’s most vulnerable populations. Solving marriage penalties in the welfare system would radically restore the culture of marriage in American life, especially among African Americans, who have felt the greatest effects of anti-marriage welfare policies. This would strengthen the social fabric of our country, encouraging trust, economic self-sufficiency, and family stability against the rising tide of fatherlessness in America today.

Conservatives should prioritize creating a truly pro-family welfare system that actively supports marriage, beginning close to home by removing the egregious marriage penalties in preschool programs. 

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