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The University of Texas at Austin

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs


The Effects of Welfare and Child Support Policies on the Timing and Incidence of Marriage Following a Nonmarital Birth

Ten Years After: Evaluating the Long-Term Effects of Welfare Reform on Children, Families, Welfare, and Work Conference, April 12-13, 2007

Researchers and policy makers have long been concerned that government policies may influence individual behavior in unintended ways. In particular, they worry that by providing mothers with an income that is independent of marriage, welfare and child support policies may discourage marriage and increase union dissolution. Economic theory is clear with respect to the marriage disincentives of welfare for single mothers (Becker 1981), but it is ambiguous with respect to child support. Whereas stronger enforcement reduces the costs of single motherhood for women, making marriage less attractive, it increases the costs for fathers, making marriage more attractive. Which effect dominates is an empirical question. Although empirical studies vary with respect to effect size and methods, the evidence compiled during the 1980s and early 1990s indicates that welfare generosity during this period had a small negative effect on marriage among mothers (Moffitt 1998) whereas strong child support enforcement reduced single motherhood by reducing nonmarital childbearing (Aizer and McLanahan 2006; Case 1998; Plotnick et al. 2004) (See Nixon for different findings 1997).

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) changed the parameters of welfare receipt and strengthened child support enforcement. Although under the new welfare regime states continued to provide cash benefits to poor single mothers, benefits are now constrained by time-limits and work requirements which increase the costs of being a single mother relative to being a married mother. PRWORA also required states to relax their restrictions on two-parent families, making it easier for married and cohabiting couples to qualify for welfare benefits. Finally PRWORA imposed new requirements on child support enforcement, rewarding states for raising their paternity establishment rates and making it harder for non-resident fathers to shirk their child support obligations. Taken together, these changes in welfare and child support policies are expected to reduce the marriage disincentives in welfare for mothers and to increase the costs of living in a separate household for fathers. Preliminary research provides inconsistent assessments of the impact on marriage and female headship of the recent changes brought about by PRWORA (Acs and Nelson 2004; Carlson et al. 2004).

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The Impact of Welfare Reform on Marriage