Polygamy is an ancient practice, rooted in patriarchy, that effectively enslaved women in societies where females had no status and little power. Restrained by their circumstances, women were better off “sharing” husbands who had power and resources than living alone or taking as a partner a man who could barely even feed himself.

Fortunately, those days are long behind us. Or are they?

In many countries, including the U.S., the state has become a polygamist, and a jealous one at that. Bound by poverty and dutifully “supported” by welfare, women find themselves trapped in a vice. If they try to get a job or have a relationship with a partner, the state will react in a jealous rage and kick them out.

Of course, that’s not how the people who have constructed our rickety welfare state actually think about it. To hear welfare state apologists tell it, the state is protecting women who are otherwise defenseless, or have no way of gaining access to the resources they need to raise their children.

The problem is that these “benefits” are contingent, and the conditions are surprisingly similar to those of the ancient polygamists. It’s fine for women to have furtive liaisons, and the state is even willing to pay for the children that issue from these casual affairs! But any kind of serious relationship, and the jealous state cuts women off.

An economist might put it in a more sterile fashion: the highest marginal tax rates in the U.S. fall on the very poor, especially women with small children, considering the fact that they often lose more than they gain by getting married and obtaining a job.

How the State Creates a Cycle of Poverty

The American welfare system was established with a wide range of contingencies and safeguards to ensure that welfare recipients are facing a “real need” and to avoid “fraud” (the “welfare queen” is a powerful political trope).

For this reason, those at the very bottom receive benefits that are, for example, “tied” to an activity in the form of a voucher. Food stamps and section 8 housing vouchers provide the poor with the sustenance and shelter they need to live lives of relative dignity and to ensure that they spend their welfare money on essentials, not luxuries and vices. But this means that they have no other way of obtaining the food or housing those vouchers provide. And as soon as they get a job, they lose their benefits. As soon as they get married, they lose their benefits.

In some cases, the effective marginal tax rates for very poor women with children can approach, and possibly even exceed, 100%. A woman with two children, who lives in Section 8 housing and receives food vouchers, whose kids receive subsidized meals at school, and who depends on “low-income energy assistance” programs to heat their apartments, can lose $20,000 worth of benefits for the first $25,000 she earns in income. As the Center for Hunger-Free Communities points out, this is called the “Cliff Effect”:

“Families that successfully increase their earnings should not find themselves worse off due to the consequent loss of benefits…. While a higher income can be an important step in a family’s progress towards self-sufficiency, the increased child food insecurity in this group suggests they may be experiencing the ‘cliff effect.’ This occurs when a increase in income causes an overall reduction in total resources due to a loss of benefits or increased tax liability.”

Not Intentional, but Still Evil

People who support this sorry state polygamy don’t actually want to be evil; in fact, I’m willing to concede that their motives are good. But the problem is the conceit that “We have to DO something!” to solve every problem. Here is how this logic plays out in practice:

  1. It is a huge problem that some people are poor.
  2. If you are a good person, you care about the fact that some people are poor.
  3. Therefore, we should do something.
  4. Housing subsidies, food subsidies, free school lunches for children, and other “poverty programs” are all something.
  5. Therefore, we should do those things.
  6. If you object that those programs actually don’t work, and in many cases are actively harmful, you hate poor people!

What the state polygamists fail to recognize is that sometimes doing something hurts more than it helps. In the case of welfare, this “benefits trap” is clearly unintentional. But it’s real. It consigns women to hopeless lives, depending on a state that doesn’t really want them, but is too jealous to let them go.