Family composition and subsidies

I’m late to this as this weekend’s kerfluffle about marriage and poverty rates.  Let me start with the appropriate level of snarking from Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Speaking of conservatives who want to pretend to talk about inequality while not actually talking about it, Edroso finds this gem from Kathleen Parker:

Obviously, marriage won’t cure all ills. A single mother could marry tomorrow and she still wouldn’t have a job. But in the War on Poverty, rebuilding a culture that encourages marriage should be part of the arsenal.

See, if you want to make it to the real big leagues, it’s better to let snarky critics refute your smarm than just doing it yourself.  I’ll leave the rest to Roy:

There are strong arguments for actual long term gains from marriage in that two people and two close-tie support networks provide for a system of shock absorbers and support that one person can’t easily match, but a decent chunk of the “marriage” gain is a coding artifact of how poverty is federally defined.  This coding error does lead to some people having an incentive to not get married.  This is not unique to Obamacare, it is an artifact of any progam that relies on federal poverty guidelines and household size. The first person in a family unit has a federal poverty level of $11,490.  Each additional member of a family unit adds $4,020 in 2013.  This arrangement assumes Ozzie and Harriet nuclear families with signficant economies of scale.  It does not account for co-habitating long term relationships .

When I first moved in with my long term girlfriend and future wife, we filed separate tax returns.That year, we were both under the federal poverty level as individuals because we were grad students.  If we had married that year for love or health insurance we would have been significantly over the poverty level for a family unit of two.  Yet, there would have been no additional resources available to us.  We still would have been broke. 

My friends Annie and Beth  have been together for almost as long as my wife and I have been.  They’re not married as our state is governed by bigots. Last year,  Annie did not work too much as she was laid off at the start of the year, and then took time to take care of her mother.  Beth worked all year and did well for herself. Beth has insurance through work, and her work offers domestic partner benefits for employees who live in bigot states (SSM states benefits only extend to married couples for Somewhat Evil Medium Size Corp), so Annie was covered as well.  However, Annie went on the Exchange and since she had minimal income and is not married, she qualified for a very large subsidy and Silver cost-sharing assistance.  If the two of them were in a federally recognized marriage, she would not have qualified for any subsidies for two reasons.  First, one person in the marriage had access to affordable employer provided health insurance. Secondly, the combined income of the family would have been over 400% of federal poverty line.  These corner cases do exist, and it is an artifact of how poverty is defined in America. 

A marriage neutral poverty measure that somehow looked at household size and characteristics of the relationships between the people in the household so that two committed adults with significant ties between them (financial, longevity of relationship, cats etc) would be an improvement.  Such a marriage neutral poverty measure would treat Annie and Beth the same as my wife and I and it would remove some perverse incentives.  It would be an administrative bear to set-up as it would have to differentiate the roommate relationship I had with one of my best friends in college when I lived with her for two years.  We  split the bills and I argued ferociously against buying a bunny for anything other than dinner.  This must be differentiated from  a long term romantic relationship with my girlfriend, then fiancee and now my wife.  The simplest take might be a formula where Adult Value is a constant so the poverty level would be Adult Value+Adult Value + X(kids value) instead of the current Single Adult value+X(related others) formula where the Adult Value is someplace around the current Single Adult value.

33 replies
  1. 1
    pluege says:

    once you established an economy that required both parents in a relationship to work full-time in order to have decent standard of living, marriage no longer is relevant – when every able-bodied adult must work full-time to survive and provide for their kids, then it truly takes a village raise children. So conservatives should just look in the mirror when they wring their hands about marriage – they ruined its purpose when they trashed the economy in their blind servitude to the ubber rich.

  2. 2
    Ash Can says:

    I have a feeling this approach is far more practical, productive, and sensible — and far less morally scolding — than the self-proclaimed marriage proponents would like. After all, if it doesn’t shame the poor (because they wouldn’t be poor if they weren’t doing something wrong), then what good is it?

    PS: Great title for a phantom post (referring to the link above and below to the next post, which leads nowhere).

    ETA: And now that’s gone too. Oh well. I’m off to scrounge up some coffee.

  3. 3
    Soonergrunt says:

    Another thoughtful, informative post. Thanks, Richard.
    This does have a lot to do with not just insurance, but a host of other benefits, as you’ve pointed out, and it presents a piece of the puzzle explaining why poor un-marrieds choose to stay that way.
    It’s also another form of discrimination aimed at the poor.

  4. 4
    maurinsky says:

    I am engaged and living with my fiance. We are currently planning to get married next year, but that may change depending on the FAFSA. He makes more than double what I make, but he pays child support and has student loans and his money is very committed, but FAFSA would consider his income and expect him to subsidize my daughter’s education. I make little enough money that I qualify for Pell Grants, and I’m counting on them to help with my daughter’s education.

  5. 5
    bemused says:

    Parker is simply demonstrating what happens when conservatives explain how they understand cause and effect, get everything ass backwards.

  6. 6
    rikyrah says:

    Hoboken mayor reveals new documents

    Anderson Cooper 360|Added on January 20, 2014Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer reveals to CNN new documents she says back up her case against the Christie administration.

  7. 7
    rikyrah says:

    Fans Help Pay Jamaican Bobsled Team’s Way to Sochi Olympics

    January 20, 2014

    In less than two days, a crowdfunding site has helped raise more than $25,000 for the Jamaican bobsled team headed to the Sochi Olympics, reports ESPN.

    Donations came pouring in to the website Crowdtilt after a collection page was set up following word the two-man team had qualified for the Olympics but needed $80,000 to get to the Games.

    The last time Jamaica sent a bobsled team to the Olympics was in 2002. Chris Stokes, general secretary of the Jamaican Bobsled Federation, said the idea that the team wouldn’t go was never the reality.

    The team, he said, pays for its way to Sochi while the local organization committee takes care of the athletes once in Russia. He did, however, say that the team still needs $80,000.

    Stokes said the team, which trained in Evanston, Wyo., wasn’t quite running on the shoestring budget memorialized in the movie “Cool Runnings,” the film loosely based on the exploits of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, but it surely hasn’t been working with all the essentials either.

    “We have not come close to covering our costs,” Stokes told on Monday. “We have many outstanding obligations, and we have to pay three more weeks of training. We’ve had very lonely days when we struggled to make ends meet by borrowing equipment. Our guys haven’t had the proper jackets.”

    Funding issues hampered the Jamaicans’ hopes of competing just four years earlier in Vancouver.

  8. 8
    rikyrah says:

    January 18, 2014
    Newark school boss Anderson cracks down on critics, suspends five principals in one day

    At Newark’s Hawthorne Avenue School, the test scores are up, higher than state-imposed goals—and certainly better than those of the highly touted “Renew” schools favored by the administration. The hallways are quiet. Teachers and administrators get along. And this was all done despite central office’s stripping away of faculty resources and shameful neglect of the building. So, in the crazy, bullying logic of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration of city schools, it was time to suspend the school’s successful principal, H. Grady James. He was just too good to be allowed to stay.

    Time to suspend him—and to try to smear his reputation by saying he was involved in some sort of “incident” now under “investigation.” The “incident” was a community meeting at the Hopewell Baptist Church last Wednesday where he spoke, praising the efforts of his students, teachers and parents.

    James was one of five principals indefinitely suspended in one day by Cami Anderson, Christie’s agent in Newark. The others were Tony Motley, Bragaw Avenue School; Dorothy Handfield, Belmont-Runyon School; Deneen Washington, Maple Avenue School, and Lisa Brown, Ivy Hill School.

    Four of the principals—James, Motley, Handfield, and Washington—had spoken at the community meeting two days earlier. They tried to answer questions from local residents worried about what would happen to their children as Anderson moves toward a wholesale transfer of public school assets to the KIPP Schools, a charter organization that operates TEAM Academy Charter Schools. Questions Anderson wasn’t answering. See and hear what they said here.

  9. 9
    dmsilev says:

    argued ferociously against buying a bunny for anything other than dinner and a long term romantic relationship with my girlfriend

    That’s really TMI.


  10. 10
    rikyrah says:

    Unemployment extension will need citizen action
    By George Zornick
    January 20 at 11:37 am

    The economic fortunes of nearly 5 million Americans will be determined in the next two weeks, as Congress moves to consider an extension of long-term jobless benefits for perhaps the last viable time. At this point, it appears only one thing can save those benefits: loud voices from constituents that wavering members are unable to ignore. And they have to arise immediately.

    Congress is home for one week and members will no doubt be pressing the flesh as the midterm elections approach. When senators return in two weeks, there is likely to be a vote on the Reed-Heller temporary extension of unemployment benefits, as Greg Sargent has reported.

  11. 11
    rikyrah says:

    Healthcare website ‘passed with flying colors’
    01/20/14 12:38 PM
    By Steve Benen

    Congressional Republicans have invested considerable energy of late in raising security fears over, so it’s a shame this news didn’t generate more attention late last week.

    Nearly three months after its launch, underwent end-to-end security testing and passed with flying colors, the top cybersecurity official overseeing the website told Congress [Thursday].

    Teresa Fryer, the chief information security officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the House Oversight Committee that results from the tests have alleviated her earlier concerns about risks of cyberattacks and theft of consumers’ personal information.

    “The protections that we have put in place have successfully prevented attacks,” Fryer told lawmakers on Thursday. “There have been no successful security attacks on the FFM [federal marketplace], and no person or group has maliciously accessed personally identifiable information.”

    Is that so.

  12. 12
    rikyrah says:

    North Carolina Obamacare Enrollment One of Nation’s Highest

    January 20, 2014 by Editor in Featured, Health Reform, Medicaid, State Health Policy with 1 Comment

    North Carolina had one of the strongest enrollment numbers for the Affordable Care Act online insurance marketplace. How did that occur?

    By Rose Hoban
    Additional reporting by Andy Miller, Georgia Health News

    North Carolina’s enrollment in the Affordable Care Act federal insurance exchange reached a level in December that was surprising given the state’s prior poor performance in signing people up.

    According to federal statistics released last week, North Carolina had 107,778 people signed up by Dec. 28, up from a total of only 8,970 who had signed up by the end of November.

    That’s after North Carolina’s exchange became the object of national ridicule when the state had only a handful of signups for all of October.


  13. 13
    rikyrah says:

    Federal judge strikes down NC’s ultrasound abortion law, citing free speech
    By Anne Blythe and Craig Jarvis
    January 17, 2014

    Doctors in North Carolina cannot be forced to show women ultrasound images and describe them in detail before performing an abortion, a federal judge ruled Friday. The decision was lauded by civil rights advocates and criticized by supporters of the law.

    U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles ruled Friday that the provision of a 2011 North Carolina law requiring abortion providers to display ultrasound images so women can see them and then describe the dimensions of an embryo or fetus and other particulars is overly broad and a free-speech violation.

    Eagles, who was nominated to the court by President Barack Obama, described the clause as a “one-size-fits-all provision” that is “an impermissible attempt to compel these providers to deliver the state’s message in favor of childbirth and against abortion.”

    “The Supreme Court has never held that a state has the power to compel a health care provider to speak, in his or her own voice, the state’s ideological message in favor of carrying a pregnancy to term, and this Court declines to do so today,” Eagles wrote in her ruling.

    Read more here:

  14. 14
    sparrow says:

    Sooo, I don’t like this idea actually, if I’m understanding correctly (I may not be).

    First of all, marriage provides some protections against being thrown out on the street, which you don’t have in a cohabitating relationship. I know of a case where a young woman had been living for a couple of years with an older man, very happily. Then he got sick and suffered some kind of mental breakdown akin to brain damage. He no longer recognized his girlfriend, and his family (who didn’t like her) kicked her out of their mutual home the next day.

    Cohabitation can dissolve in an instant. So I don’t think you can make that akin to marriage.

  15. 15
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @dmsilev: fixed :)

  16. 16
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    That’s a distressing story. Also distressing is the tongue bath then-Mayor Cory Booker gave Cami Anderson a couple of years ago:

    ETA link:,00.html

    TIME 100: THE LIST
    Cami Anderson

    By Cory BookerWednesday, Apr. 18, 2012

    Cami Anderson is a modern-day freedom fighter, investing her life’s work in the educational trenches and working to liberate our country from the destructive delusion that children can’t achieve at the highest levels just because they were born into tough circumstances.

  17. 17
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @dmsilev: No you’re not. ;-)

  18. 18
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @sparrow: Agreed that marriage is far “stickier” than cohabitation with a whole host of entangled legal rights and obligations. But if there is a concern that Obamacare, or any other program that uses federal poverty guidelines as a qualification discourages marriage by creating pervese income incentives, then fixing the guidelines to be marriage agnostic is a viable way forward.

  19. 19
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @rikyrah: I expect Darryl Issa’s calls for Congressional hearings into the coverup to begin next week.

  20. 20
    Violet says:

    Thanks, Richard, for a very informative post as usual. There are so many issues tied up with how the healthcare system is working and should work. It’s great to see things like this explained plainly.

  21. 21
    rikyrah says:

    Alex Haley: Alex Haley’s 1965 Playboy Interview With Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Haley: As one who grew up in the economically comfortable, socially insulated environment of a middle-income home in Atlanta, can you recall when it was that you yourself first became painfully and personally aware of racial prejudice?

    King: Very clearly. When I was 14, I had traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia, with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley; she’s dead now. I had participated there in an oratorical contest sponsored by the Negro Elks. It turned out to be a memorable day, for I had succeeded in winning the contest. My subject, I recall, ironically enough, was “The Negro and the Constitution.” Anyway, that night, Mrs. Bradley and I were on a bus returning to Atlanta, and at a small town along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us, calling us “black sons of bitches.” I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley finally urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. And so we stood up in the aisle for the 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.

  22. 22
    dmsilev says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Well no, not really.

  23. 23
    rikyrah says:

    The race card? Isn’t that what Republicans are demanding to stop people from voting?

    9:48 PM – 20 Jan 2014

  24. 24
    rikyrah says:

    Keith Boykin @keithboykin
    So Olympian Carl Lewis, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Ft. Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich & Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop are all lying about Christie?

    4:24 PM – 20 Jan 2014

  25. 25
    RaflW says:

    I’m not a social scientist but I do also wonder if the whole marriage-fixes-poverty thing is ass-backwards. OK, the statistics indicate that families with two marrieds do better.

    But is that the bias that people who are doing better in aggregate feel more secure and more able to commit, and that people in economic distress are not in as solid a place to take the plunge?

    In other words are the stats measuring the influence of marriage on poverty, or the influence of poverty on marriage?

  26. 26
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @RaflW: I’m betting a little bit of A, and a whole lot of B.

  27. 27
    negative 1 says:

    @Richard Mayhew: Plus I’m too lazy to google but isn’t the trend favoring B? As in the demographic composition of married people has been trending older and more wealthy for several years?

  28. 28
    Mnemosyne says:

    The first person in a family unit has a federal poverty level of $11,490.

    I remember somebody posted yesterday that her friend’s daughter was a college student making only $8K a year but was told she made too much money for Medicaid. I’m wondering if the actual problem is that the student is going to college in one of the lovely states that refuses Medicaid to able-bodied adults:

    Adults without Dependent Children

    There is currently no federal requirement that states provide health coverage to adults without dependent children. These adults qualify for Medicaid coverage only if they have a disability or are age 65 or older. However, about half of states provide some coverage through federal waivers or state-funded programs for non-disabled adults who have limited incomes but do not otherwise qualify for Medicaid.

  29. 29
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Mnemosyne: Yep, if she is in a non-expansion state and does not have a disability and makes more than a pittance but less than 100% Federal Poverty level, she is SOL as she won’t qualify for legacy Medicaid and the Exchanges were set up with the assumption that every state would take Expanded Medicaid (fuck you very much Chief Justice Roberts et al)

  30. 30
    BrianM says:

    If I remember correctly a recent(ish) conversation with a Swede, in Sweden you’re taxed on your income. Single, married, cohabiting, doesn’t matter. Each person pays their own taxes. (Of course, they don’t have the “only one of us has health insurance” issue.)

    I’m vaguer on what happens with children, but each parent is financially responsible for them. Again, where a parent lives, with whom, and under what heading doesn’t matter.

    An amusing thing: according to him, it’s customary in his crowd (white-collar, under 40) to get married when your children start nagging you about it. Until then, you don’t bother.

  31. 31
    jayackroyd says:

    The simplest solution is a simple grant, a quarterly check equal to the poverty level for everyone over 18.

    While we’re at it, deposited to an account at the Fed, which everyone also has.

  32. 32
    CnNaevius says:

    So it’s undoubtedly true that many people, at least, would be wealthier if they got or stayed married. So why, pray tell, do more people not get or stay married?

    A lot of people seem to be assuming that the answer is, “Poor people are just too dumb to understand the economic benefits of marriage.” Like, people have children on their own, or get divorced, thinking, “hey, this won’t affect my lifestyle at all!”

    But in my experience, people are actually aware of the possibility of becoming wealthier by getting or staying married, but *do not think it’s worth it*. Being in a crappy marriage is really awful! In some cases, even more awful than poverty! So people sensibly choose to get by with less, rather than deal with, say, an abusive husband.

    Of course, there are people who make the opposite decision: “I hate my spouse, but I can just about endure this awful relationship, and I don’t think I could make it without my spouse’s financial support, so I’ll just put up with the crap that comes with it.” The magical benefits of marriage, in action!

    Plans to reduce poverty by encouraging marriage may, then, “work”; that is, you could increase the amount of money people are payed for making and enduring crappy marriages, or you could make poverty more awful, so that more people will put up with personal misery to avoid it. But should this be a goal? Conservative arguments along these lines often describe such programs as encouraging “virtue”, which makes sense if you think “virtue” is a synonym for “money.” And of course, poverty is more easily measurable than marital unhappiness, so a shift like this might well make it *seem* like things have improved. But maybe we should recognize that poor people have internal lives that go beyond the desire not to be poor, and take seriously the trade-offs they make, even if those trade-offs make for aesthetically unpleasant statistics.

    tl;dr: maybe it would be preferable to get people out of poverty *without* attaching them to long-term romantic partners against their will.

  33. 33
    Crouchback says:

    The sociologist James Flynn had an interesting observation (which can be found in his book Where have all the liberals gone?) about marriage and families. If you look at the ratio of marriageable men to women in a population, you can do a pretty good job of predicting the out of wedlock birth rate. Basically, the populations with high percentages of single mothers are the same as those with a shortage of marriageable men. Amazingly, women are well aware that raising children is a lot of work and generally will choose to make sure a father is involved if possible. If not some women will have kids anyway but becoming a single mother is rarely the preferred option. White, college educated women have the best marriage prospects in the United States. Not coincidentally they have the lowest rate of out of wedlock births. In other words Parker and the rest of the conservatives have things backward. The problem is the supply of husbands not the demand. End the war on drugs, jack up the minimum wage and otherwise stop shooting down, laying off or locking up potential husbands for poor and working class women and you’ll see a lot more kids growing up in intact families.

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