Mike Lee and Jim Jordan: Make Work and Marriage Great Again

May 25, 2017

Americans are, on average, wealthier, healthier, and better-educated than we ever have been. We've made huge strides in civil rights and racial equality. We have access to technology that would have awed past generations.

But fundamentally, our culture and way of life has undergone some changes that are not necessarily positive.

As documented in the recently released report, "What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America," Americans' day-to-day lives have significantly changed over the last few decades -- and not always for the better.

Between 1970 and 2016, the share of children not being raised by two parents rose from 15 to 31 percent. Over that same time, births to single mothers rose from 11 percent to 40 percent. And more than half of American children now live with a single parent at some point before they turn 16.

This breakdown of the American family has real economic and social consequences for all of us. On average, children from married households live healthier lives, attain higher levels of education, earn more, and enjoy greater wealth as adults than children from single-parent households.

As the American family has been weakening, our attachment to work has been fraying for many as well. Between 1970 and 2016, labor force participation for prime-working-age men declined from 96 percent to 89 percent. The fall-off has been worse for men with little education. Those with no more than a high school degree put in 14 percent fewer hours at work in 2012 than they did in the mid-1970s.

We are not writing today with a silver-bullet solution to these problems. The causes are cultural, economic, and policy related. What we do know is that at a bare minimum government should not actively make these problems worse. Unfortunately, some of our current welfare policies are making these problems worse, which is why we are introducing the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act.

Prior to the Obama administration, the size of the federal government's food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, ebbed and flowed with the economy. The number of recipients went up during recessions and fell during recoveries.

But President Obama ended the link between work and food stamp eligibility through a generous use of state waivers. As a result, today's SNAP program foots the bill for 44 million people, compared to just 26 million before the recession.

Our bill would restore that link between work and assistance by creating a 100-hour-per-month work activation requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents. Single parents with a child younger than 6 would be exempt from penalties, but they are still guaranteed access to all vocational opportunities offered by the state.

Finally, to make sure that current SNAP recipients are assisted in their search for work, the states would be given $500 million to help develop vocational programs for those who have trouble finding work. These vocational programs can assist recipients to fulfill their hours through education, through volunteer hours, or by getting that first job that allows a family to step out of poverty.

The era of signing citizens up for assistance and then neglecting the next step is over.

The bill also allow would allow married parents with children to split the work requirement between them, thus making it easier for working parents to balance raising a family and providing for their family.

These are admittedly small steps. Much more can be done to end the many ways federal policies currently punish work and marriage through the tax code, health policy, and housing assistance.

Much has changed culturally and economically in the past decades, but we can improve the state of the American family today. We can remove some of the barriers that make family and work life more difficult. And our bill, the "Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act," is one step toward making that happen.