Why Does The Government Incentivize Marriage?

The true cost of being unmarried is higher than you'd think

Updated 12/15/17

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When it came to the fight for gay marriage, not all of the motivations were about the romantic side of tying the knot. Sure, a lot of people wanted to have their love recognized and they wanted to be able to celebrate their relationship in a way that has been done for centuries—and they should, undoubtedly, have every right to do that. But some of the considerations in the campaign for gay marriage were practical ones, because there are a lot of ways that society is harsher on unmarried people. And it’s not just that their relationships are sometimes treated as less ‘legitimate’ or that single people, especially women, are sometimes treated with totally unwarranted pity. The truth is, the government provides a lot of breaks for married couples. Whether on purpose or by accident, it incentivizes marriage and punishes singledom. And it costs single people more than you might think.

There’s A Huge Financial Burden

Whether you’re single or just not married, there are huge financial costs that place an unfair burden on you—and it starts with taxes. Although you might not realize how significant the discrepancy is, when you see how it can add up over a lifetime it’s truly shocking. The New York Times, in order to demonstrate the huge cost of being unmarried, compared a hypothetical married couple and unmarried gay couple earning the same amount to show the difference that tax benefits and other privileges actually made. The results were jaw-dropping. “In our worst case, the couple's lifetime cost of being gay was $467,562,” they explained. “But the number fell to $41,196 in the best case for a couple with significantly better health insurance, plus lower taxes and other costs.”

And yes, now gay couples can get married, but the problem still exists for the many couples, gay or straight, who for various reasons aren’t ready to tie the knot—and for the single people who either choose to remain unpartnered or haven’t met someone yet. What about them? One study found that a single woman earning $40,000 would pay about $1,000 more in taxes than her married counterparts—and one earning $80,000 would pay around $4,000 more. Every year. Over a 40 year working life, that’s over a $150,000 difference. And that’s before you get into considerations like insurance and retirement funds, both of which often favor married people over singletons.

A Discrimination Issue

The truth is, it’s discrimination. “U.S. Federal Code Title 5 Part III says: The President may prescribe rules which shall prohibit...discrimination because of marital status,” The Atlantic explains. “Yet more than 1,000 laws provide overt legal or financial benefits to married couples. Marital privileging marginalizes the 50 percent of Americans who are single. The U.S. government is the main perpetrator, but private companies follow its lead. Thus marital privilege pervades nearly every facet of our lives. Insurance policies—ranging from health, to life, to home, to car—cost more, on average, for unmarried people compared to those who are married. It is not a federal crime for landlords to discriminate against potential renters based on their marital status. And so on.”

There are so many ways this happens and, when you take a closer look, none of this seems fair. Social security benefits, if you die single without children, go back into the system rather than to the people you love. If you’re married, it goes to your family. But single people without children will have relationships every bit as important as married people have—people who are family to them—and they can’t pass on their benefits to them. Even IRAs have more penalties about withdrawal for single people. It’s rife in our government—and where the government went, others followed, in areas like insurance. So how did we get here?

Accident Or Design?

The government's tax plans that benefit married people are a relatively new design—dating back to just after World War II. But there is some debate if this was done explicitly to promote traditional families or if it was never meant to become so lopsided. “Married people traditionally received a marriage bonus in the form of lower tax rates than single people based on a post World War II vision of a stay at home wife and kids,” Beverly Moran, Professor of Law, Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University writes. And many commentators would agree, but others argue that it just sort of happened this way.

“The tax breaks really began in 1948, and were largely an afterthought (and an unintended one) to the 1948 tax reform that changed the unit of taxation from the individual to the family via the adoption of income splitting for married couples, partly because taxpayers in community property states were already implementing joint filing on their own,” Dr. James R Alm, Professor and Chair of Economics at Tulane University, writes. “However, keep in mind that, beginning in 1969 or thereabouts, the tax code started penalizing (some) married couples, mainly those in which both partners earned similar (and significant) incomes.” But unless you’re two very high earners, married people, as we’ve seen, have significant benefits over single people. Whether by design to promote and incentivize marriage or by accident, it seems clear that the governmental endorses following a traditional family unit. And, as we’ve seen, insurance companies, retirement companies, and more follow suit. And what remains is a system slanted against single people.

The truth is, single people are already discriminated against by society. They have to fork out huge sums of money for engagement and weddings—which they don’t see reciprocated. They have to take on costs like housing and food alone, which is often inefficient and expensive. And though some of these things can’t be helped, governmental policy should not favor married people. Whether it’s done to encourage some antiquated version of a family unit or because it’s evolved this way and gotten out of hand, it’s not fair. Our single people deserve more.

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