Polygamy and Welfare

Amanda follows Jill in tackling the story of Warren Jeffs’ polygamist cult, wherein 14-year-old girls were married off to patriarchs. Like Jill, she uses this as a springboard to attack the entire practice of polygamy on the grounds that it’s a patriarchal arrangement.

The point of interest arises from a comment by One Jewish Dyke, who links to an article explaining that right now, the government only regards a Mormon patriarch’s first wife as a real wife, and as such, subsequent wives receive economic benefits of single mothers.

Deanna Beagley was raised in a polygamist family that included two mothers with 25 children. When she was 15 two girls told her at school that they heard she was going to be their “new mother.” Beagley later learned an FLDS leader had been given a “revelation” that she was to become the fourth wife of a middle-aged man she despised. Beagley asked for help from the principal of an elementary school in a nearby town. He adopted her.

In 1998 at 24 Beagley lived with her husband and three children on the outskirts of St. George, Utah. She had successfully established a new life. But she grew up on food stamps and welfare. She said, “I know women out there wouldn’t be having as many babies if it weren’t for the welfare. I remember being told that this was a work of God and it was up to the outside world to make us flourish.” To get more welfare money her father’s second wife lied, she claimed his first wife’s children were also hers to collect more, Beagley said.

According to federal paperwork, Colorado City is filled largely with unwed mothers without any visible spousal support. But Beagley said this has become a polygamist tradition, so that no proof exists of their many marriages through public records. Husbands marry only once in a civil ceremony. Other subsequent marriages are done “spiritually, but not legally. Beagley concluded, “It’s a way of life. You get married, you go on welfare, and that’s it.”

Polygamous women are treated as single mothers. “In terms of food-stamp eligibility, she’s not in a recognized marriage situation, and she’d be considered a single mom with kids,” said Mason Bishop, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Bush has said a few times that the best solution to poverty is marriage. In one sense, he’s right: if a single person needs X dollars per year to have a certain standard of living, then a couple needs far less than 2X to achieve the same standard, due to rent sharing, eating together, paying together for utilities, and so on. But by the same token, if a couple needs Y dollars, where Y < 2X, then a partnership of three needs less than 1.5Y.

I’m not saying that the government needs to encourage polyamory as an alternative to welfare. Puritanism is puritanism, regardless of whether it enforces the morality of Victorian England or this of a Heinlein novel. But what this shows is that in a country where welfare is distributed in inverse correlation to the number of adults in a household, polygamists should be the last on the dole line.

Of course, when cheating to get welfare is such an important source of income to polygamist communities, legalization alone won’t solve the problem of welfare cheating. But it will give the government the tools to say that since a certain woman isn’t really single but rather lives with a husband and another wife, she doesn’t deserve TANF benefits.

18 Responses to Polygamy and Welfare

  1. edie says:

    Polyamory ≠ polygamy. The two are fundamentally different; polyamory is about loving multiple people, e.g. A is an a relationship with B and C, B is in a relationship with A and D, and C is taking it easy. Polygamy is about a man marrying multiple women. The women, as I understand it, are disallowed from having multiple husbands, which means the relationships are not polyamorous. I won’t get into distinguishing between love and marriage. Since polyamorous people (I am one) seem to predominantly be hippyish counterculture people, a good chunk of them probably aren’t terribly rich, or into the financial agreements or institution of marriage. I’m a purist; polyamory = (love – possession).

    Anyway, I liked your post.

  2. whig says:

    Once you bring in marriage, doesn’t polyamory become equivalent to polygamy?

  3. The LDS situation presents a real ethical dilemma. Some patriarchs marry way more women than they can support. Women low down in the wife hierarchy are literally single mothers, even if they consider themselves married. To make matters worse, many patriarchs forbid their wives to work. So, these women and their children objectively need welfare.

    Of course, patriarchs are the ultimate welfare kinds who use state subsidy to sustain their irresponsible lifestyle, but what is society to do?

  4. That should have read “welfare kings.” Welfare royalty is a myth, except when it comes to LDS patriarchs who make their numerous wives and children subsist on welfare.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    In Israel, the fundamentalist parties in the Knesset make sure that child credit is distributed the opposite of the logical way, that is each child gives you more money (last I checked, it was something like $500/year for the first child, rising to $1,500/year for each child after the fourth). That way, ultra-Orthodox families can eat even though the fathers typically don’t work but rather study the Torah all day long, the mothers stay at home, and the children go to ultra-Orthodox schools.

    But there are ultra-Orthodox Jews outside Israel, too. In NYC, where they don’t get these free lunches, they bite a bullet and work for a living. Presumably, the same will apply to Mormon families once the state stops subsidizing their lifestyle choices.

  6. whig says:

    Alon, I wouldn’t say it is illogical, just a policy preference for encouraging more children of religious Jews. I’m not endorsing that policy, but pointing out the logic.

  7. Often, LDS plural wives live separately from their ostensible husbands and don’t benefit from household economies of scale.

    From what I read in “Under the Banner of Heaven,” the patriarch and his first wife live in a nice house and the second- and third-tier wives get farmed out to trailers and forced to subsist on whatever share of their welfare benefits they aren’t compelled to hand over to their patriarchs.

  8. whig says:

    Also, the “lifestyle choice” of which you seem to find most offensive is not the having of more children, but the study of Torah in preference to “work[ing] for a living.” That expresses a bias on your part.

  9. Nobody’s disputing the logic. I’m sure the policy works very well, too.

    There are plenty of worthwhile ways to spend one’s time that don’t constitute “working for a living”–simply because they don’t involve making a living. Studying the Torah is work, but it’s apparently not a wage-earning enterprise for these guys.

    The state shouldn’t be deliberately subsidizing their private devotional practice.

    If you’re going to have a generous welfare state, which I think is a good thing, then you’re going to get some people abusing that system. I’d rather have a more open system that allowed a little more deliberate idleness/abuse vs. a very strict and degrading system that humiliated and controlled everyone on public assistance in the process of ferreting out a little low-level fraud.

    I don’t think those LDS families are committing fraud. The state doesn’t recognize their marriages. If you’re not married in the eyes of the state, you’re not married for the sake of state-run programs like welfare. I think that’s Alon’s point. If we did recognize these marriages, we might be able to take them into account in our public policy decisions. But until we do, there’s nothing inherently illegal or fraudulent about these women collecting TANF.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    If you’re going to have a generous welfare state, which I think is a good thing, then you’re going to get some people abusing that system. I’d rather have a more open system that allowed a little more deliberate idleness/abuse vs. a very strict and degrading system that humiliated and controlled everyone on public assistance in the process of ferreting out a little low-level fraud.

    Exactly. These FLDS groups are so small that cracking down on their welfare practices won’t make a dent in government spending, even in Utah. The point of legalizing polygamy with respect to FLDS groups is not to stop paying money to groups that don’t really need it, but to help integrate these groups into mainstream society, which will empower FLDS women more.

  11. whig says:

    Lindsay, Israel is explicitly a Jewish state so it doesn’t seem wrong to me that it subsidizes religion. The United States is another matter, of course.

  12. whig says:

    To the main topic, I consider marriage something separate from the state, a religious practice which ought to be outside the state’s power to regulate in the case of consenting adults. Marriage licenses were devised to prohibit miscegenation in the first place, and ought to be thrown out as a relic of a racist past.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    Lindsay, Israel is explicitly a Jewish state so it doesn’t seem wrong to me that it subsidizes religion.

    If it just subsidized religion, it’d be a matter of separation of synagogue and state. But it does more than that; a few years ago, I read that the average student at a yeshiva received twice as much money in state subsidies as the average student at a public university.

    On top of that, Israel’s child credit policy is built not to support needy families, since the first child is the one that costs the most, but to prop up ultra-Orthodox families. It also happens to be one of the very few things that help Arabs more than Jews in Israel, but the Jewish fundamentalist parties are a lot more powerful than the Arab parties that worked with them on the child credit legislation.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    To the main topic, I consider marriage something separate from the state, a religious practice which ought to be outside the state’s power to regulate in the case of consenting adults.

    Me too, but you need to find ways to recover at least the major privileges of married couples, especially those centered around shared property and child custody. With child custody you can just recognize the “have children together” or “have adopted children together” relationship, but there probably still need to be some regulations on which groups of people are allowed to designate themselves co-guardians of a child.

  15. whig says:

    Alon, I would stipulate that there is no separation of synagogue and state and Israel. If you think there should be, then Israel would cease to be a Jewish state.

  16. whig says:

    That should be “no separation of synagogue and state of Israel”

  17. Whig, Israel is a Jewish state, but that’s neither here nor there. The state may well have the power to subsidize certain religious fanatics who place their private devotional study ahead of supporting their families or paying taxes. However, that’s not the only manifestation of Jewishness. That’s just one kooky lifestyle that is endorsed by some sects within Judaism. Even if you interpret the mandate of the state of Israel to support the Jewish religion, the question remains whether it’s fair or productive to subsidize a particular practice or way of life for a community within a larger country.

    It’s one thing to subsidize the training of rabbis or the construction of public synagogues–it’s quite another to support private devotional study for people who aren’t expected to serve the public in any way. It’s like a Catholic country buying lavish gold-plated icons for the few with the tax dollars of the many. You can’t justify that by saying, well, it’s a Catholic country. Even religious democracies have obligations to spend public money for the public good.

  18. whig says:

    Yes, I think you’re right about it being a bad public policy, Lindsay.

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