U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI) calls for better incentives through his bill H.R. 2506, the Making Work and Marriage Pay Act.
Multiple and uncoordinated federal tax and benefit programs for low-income families phase out income support on various schedules. The combined effect of these phase-outs reduces disposable income at rates that can be as high as 200 percent. Petri's legislation would establish a national commission, made up of Cabinet Secretaries, State Governors, and recognized public policy experts, to examine this problem and recommend a comprehensive solution.
"Most economists will tell you that taxing income at such high levels will change individual behavior so as to avoid the loss of income," Petri noted. "In this case, low-income families are avoiding work and marriage."
Petri is not alone in noting the decline in marriage. A December 2011 report from the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project showed steep declines in marriage. More recently, Child Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research group, reported that in 2009 a substantial majority of women under 30 who bore children did so outside of marriage.
This disparity in social behavior was analyzed in Charles Murray's newly published book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 - 2010. In his book, Murray demonstrates that the decline in marriage and the rise in out-of-wedlock births are concentrated among lower-income households.
Petri believes that the flawed structure of federal and state programs designed to benefit these same low-income families has had the unintended consequence of hindering their acquisition of the social behaviors necessary for their eventual success.
He is working to raise the awareness of his House colleagues regarding this issue. In particular, he believes that the debate provoked by Murray's book is instructive.
Petri said, "Commentators have pointed to a wide variety of underlying causes, but all agree that this emerging trend is not good for the future of our nation. My legislation offers an opportunity to remove government imposed disincentives to marriage and work."