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Marriage Is Not a Replacement For the Social Safety Net
Just give people money. It's not that hard.
In January, Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to the Iowa House that would limit who can qualify for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and which foods they can buy.
The bill, House File 3, provoked national headlines because the proposed changes would have taken away recipients’ ability to buy things like fresh meat, refried beans, and white rice.
Those specific restrictions have been eliminated from the bill. But new limits on eligibility remain, such as the exclusions of families with more than one car or more than $2,750 in cash on hand ($4,250 if the household includes someone with a disability or someone who is over 60). The bill now sits before the Health and Human Services Committee waiting to be debated.
Even without food-specific restrictions, the bill is dangerous. It threatens to cut off vital assistance to families and children. And it’s part of a nationwide and decades-long push to dismantle the social safety net and replace it with marriage.
On the surface, supporters of the law will say it’s about money. Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley argued, "..These entitlement programs [are] the ones that are growing within the budget and are putting pressure on us being able to fund other priorities.”
Meanwhile, Iowa Senate President Amy Sinclair defended the proposed restrictions as a way to prevent “fraud and abuse.”
But Iowa has a substantial budget surplus, and the number of SNAP recipients is down from over 420,000 in 2013 to 282,432 in 2022. Only four SNAP recipients in Iowa were convicted of fraud in the 2020 fiscal year.
Opponents to social safety net programs like to quote a U.S. Department of Agriculture stating, “About 11.8 percent of all authorized SNAP stores engaged in trafficking” over the 2012 – 2014 period. (Trafficking is when people exchange SNAP benefits for cash.) But that quote is misleading out of context. It cites the percentage of retailers that engaged in trafficking “at least once,” rather than the percentage of actual trafficking. That percentage is 1.5 percent. That’s right: Only 1.5 percent of SNAP benefits utilized nationwide were trafficked, according to a 2018 study.
But the school voucher program that was recently signed into law in Iowa is highly likely to lead to widespread abuse through embezzlement and money laundering, as has been the case in other states with similar laws.
It can also be argued that the financial cost of poverty — through lost worker productivity, increased crime and homelessness, health care needs and more — is more of a drain on states than welfare programs.
Cuts to the social safety net aren’t about expenses the state can’t afford, nor about the nearly nonexistent issue of fraud, but rather about what the state doesn’t want to do — feed children. And what Republican lawmakers do want to do — use marriage as a solution to poverty.
In search of the motivation behind the latest “entitlement reforms,” I read through the Republican Study Committee's latest fiscal report, “The Blueprint to Save America”, which was released in June 2022. In it, the RSC suggests exactly the kinds of changes Iowa lawmakers are proposing in order to cut what it calls “entitlement spending” and balance the budget. Briefly summarized, the plan involves moving SNAP benefits to a discretionary block grant program that would cut out federal rules and oversight and allow states to change work requirements.
Throughout the document, the RSC repeatedly emphasizes that marriage and family should be the focus of these programs, pointing out that it’s being a single parent (specifically a single mother) that tends to lead to poverty.The solution? Force people into marriage in the name of fiscal responsibility.
It’s not a new plan or even a secret one. It’s not even just a Republican plan. State-funded marriage initiatives have been a policy priority under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And the logic of each of the programs has always been, as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio stated in 2014, that marriage is the “greatest tool to lift women and children out of poverty.”
Currently in Iowa, SNAP recipients receive a letter touting the benefits of a “healthy marriage.” The woman who sent me the letter she received was a recent divorcee who told me by email that the letter made her feel like the government was calling her a failure, “[that if] I had been in a healthy marriage I wouldn’t be on SNAP now, and that is obviously the goal. To be in a healthy marriage because that’s where women belong….in a marriage making it healthy for the man so he can … make up to twice as much income as non-married households… The document doesn’t talk about how to have a healthy marriage, so we know the goal isn’t really education. …Just this little innocuous document letting all of us sad little welfare peasants know that we should be married.”
The Iowa Department of Health and Human Services didn’t respond to a request for more information.
But state-funded marriage programs don’t work. In 2020, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported, “A faith-based Iowa charity is spending $4.2 million of taxpayers’ money staging workshops on dating and marriage.” Meanwhile, the marriage rate in Iowa is down 4.1 percent since 1990.
If women get married, the argument goes, they can rely on men to save them rather than the government. And a married woman is a woman under control.
Despite the fact that more and more women are choosing not to marry or to marry later in life, American culture is still confounded by a single woman and abhors a single mother. Single mothers are seen as a problem to solve with the corrective of marriage.
According to a 2022 Pew survey, “Some 47% of U.S. adults say single women raising children on their own is generally a bad thing for society, an increase of 7 percentage points from the 40% who said the same in a 2018 Center survey.”
Yes, married couples are less likely to live below the poverty line. And yes, children who grow up in two-parent households are more likely to graduate from high school or go to jail. But that’s not the result of holy matrimony. It’s just money.
Poverty isn’t a natural result of living in a one-parent household. Our society and economy discriminate against women, especially single mothers, and then blames them for the result. In a 2022 article for Slate, sociologist and author Scott Coltrane pointed out, “...Kids whose parents don’t live together are more likely to experience poverty, both because those with less education are less likely to marry and because splitting the income that once supported one household means a lower budget for both new ones. For those kids … divorce isn’t driving bad outcomes; poverty is.”
What hurts children the most isn’t divorce — it’s an American system that reinforces racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty.
People who are poorer are more likely to divorce, thus compounding inequality. But women earn less than men, and mothers earn even less than childless women. Add in the cost of childcare and the fact that women are still the primary caretakers and more likely to leave their jobs to take care of children, and what you have is a system designed to punish women for daring to leave a bad marriage. When women reach out to the government for assistance, the response is to shame them into getting married again.
In a 2017 article for The Daily Beast, Dana Goldstein examined this issue through the lens of single fathers, noting, “It’s not that poor people don’t respect marriage. It’s that in a country in which more than 300,000 low-skill, well-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the early 1950s—replaced by unstable, low-paid positions in the service sector—many single mothers smartly choose not to live with or marry their children’s fathers, because they are not attractive mates. These men are typically unemployed or severely underemployed, and sometimes also addicted or abusive. Marriage promotion won’t work until low-income men get the education, health care (both physical and mental), and jobs they need to contribute to family life.”
A 2019 study by the US Census Bureau concluded that in places where divorce is quick and easy to obtain, “The number of marriages increases by at least 9%. Female suicides decrease by 8% to 16% and domestic violence decreases by around 30%. Women start working more outside of the home — up to 7 percentage points more — increasing their economic clout in a marriage by bringing income that they control into the home.”
Essentially, making families stronger starts with giving women more freedom, not less.
One easy way to cut divorce rates? Raise the minimum wage.
And, at the risk of stating the obvious: Study after study shows that a well-funded social safety net reduces poverty.
Dismantling SNAP doesn’t save money or prevent fraud, which is virtually nonexistent anyway. We know how to help lift families out of poverty. We even know how to help parents stay together. It begins with money.
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Yes, he’s the grandson of Iowa’s octogenarian senator, Chuck Grassley.
There are other data that show different numbers. But all the data indicate that in Iowa the number of SNAP recipients is down from a decade ago.
My editor, Serena Golden, pointed out that a search of the document reveals that the term “single mother” appears four times, “marriage” appears 26 times, and “single father” appears 0 times.