The Magazine

Marriage Penalties

What's good and what's bad in Bush's tax plan

Feb 26, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 23 • By ALLAN CARLSON and DAVID BLANKENHORN
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WHEN MARRIAGE BUFFS (like us) consider President Bush's proposed tax cuts, we don't obsess over whether they will be good for the economy, or for certain government programs, or for the Republican party. We lose sleep over whether they will be good for the institutions of marriage and the family. And for those who share our little fixation, here's the skinny: President Bush's tax plan contains one very good idea and one very bad one.

The good idea is doubling the child tax credit, from $ 500 to $ 1,000. This increase would reflect the principle that raising children is not only a private lifestyle choice, like raising geraniums, but also a socially necessary vocation that deserves and requires support from society.

Unlike reducing marginal rates, which disproportionately benefits the affluent, the child tax credit is non-regressive; the poorest taxpaying family benefits from it just as much as (and proportionately more than) the richest. Moreover, unlike the notoriously unfair dependent care tax credit, which provides tax relief to parents using commercial child care, the child tax credit helps all taxpaying families with children. (Indeed, as part of this year's tax package, we hope that the president and Congress will finally correct the inequity at the heart of the dependent care tax credit, either by replacing it with an even larger child tax credit -- say, $ 1,500 per child -- or by making it available on a non-discriminatory basis to all families with young children.)

At the same time, while the child tax credit helps many married parents, its connection to marriage itself is indirect. Because the credit is marriage-neutral, it fails to reflect any societal or policy understanding of what marriage is. To get at this deeper issue -- the one that truly sets the heart of the marriage buff aflutter -- we must look at what is surely the most misbegotten tax issue of the past two decades: the so-called marriage penalty. And here is where the Bush tax plan takes a wrong turn. Indeed, the president's proposal to reduce the marriage penalty would weaken marriage, not strengthen it.

To get this issue straight, we need to rewind the tape a bit. For marriage buffs, the tax question on which all else rides is whether we tax married persons as individuals, essentially as if they were single, or treat the married-couple household as a single unit of taxation. Because marriage buffs want public policy to recognize that marriage exists, we cling to the latter formula. Conversely, those who dislike marriage, as well as those who haven't thought it through, or who simply have other tax-policy fish to fry, almost always favor the tax-them-as-individuals approach.

Criticism of something called the "marriage penalty" -- defined as a married couple's paying more in taxes filing jointly than they would if they had remained single and filed separately -- first emerged in the United States in the 1970s. The proposed solution sprang from the ideological Left, and entered the U.S. debate in part by way of Swedish social radicalism: Ignore marriage altogether. Tax everyone individually. Such a shift in public policy would eliminate the marriage penalty, but it would also sharply scale back recognition of marriage in public policy and, in the process, create substantial economic disincentives for all forms of marital interdependence, including the decision of mothers to be at home with children. For the Left as a whole, this posed no problem. And for the anti-marriage Left, what a sweet irony. They could advance their agenda under the rhetorical guise of helping some married couples!

In the early 1980s, the story got even stranger, as eliminating the Left-defined "marriage penalty" suddenly became a pet cause of supply-side economists in the Reagan administration. Supply-siders' mission is to cut marginal tax rates to induce more and more Americans to get jobs and work longer hours, thus boosting the gross national product. In important respects, however, they are soul mates of the anti-marriage Left. Both groups see the world primarily in terms of autonomous individuals, not family units or people who depend on others. Both strongly favor the market economy over the household economy, and paid work over unpaid work. In particular, both groups look at able-bodied mothers at home with children and see a social problem.

So here is the conservative economist Alan Reynolds of the Hudson Institute in 1999, writing in National Review, worrying that the U.S. economy is "running short of willing and able workers." Why are we running short? Primarily because high marginal tax rates are "driving skilled married women out of the labor force." This is very bad. Such women become economic non-contributors. They raise children and run communities as volunteers, indifferent to the fact that The Economy needs them! And here is the Social Democratic finance minister of Sweden, Bosse Ringholm, explaining in February 2000 that he opposes the extension of certain tax benefits to at-home parents because "society gets nothing back from a parent who is at home. Those who are at home contribute nothing to the state." Milton Fried-man strategically cuddling up with Gloria Steinem. Who could have imagined it? Yet this odd intellectual scaffolding has defined the "marriage penalty" debate in the United States for more than two decades.

In 1981, purportedly to reduce the marriage penalty, the Reagan administration sought and achieved a change in the tax code that was an important step in the direction of individual taxation. Under this law, couples in which both spouses work were allowed to deduct 10 percent of up to $ 30,000 of the income of the lower-earning spouse. It was a classic supply-side measure -- essentially a $ 600 per year incentive for the second spouse to enter the paid labor force. This provision was eliminated in the tax changes of 1986.

In the early 1990s, Newt Gingrich loudly revived the notion of ending the marriage penalty, including the promise in the Republicans' 1994 Contract With America. In 1997, the Congressional Budget Office weighed in, releasing a study not only quantifying the marriage penalty, but also showing that many (primarily one-earner) couples enjoy what the CBO called a marriage "bonus" -- that is, they pay less as a married couple than they would have paid as single individuals. Largely on the basis of this CBO report, virtually everyone in the public debate -- except a few eccentric marriage buffs -- came firmly to believe that individual filing represents the basic standard of tax fairness.

This was a huge idea, and it had consequences. In 1997, and again in 1999, congressional Republicans seriously entertained, and in fact came close to passing, legislation permitting married couples to file their returns singly, as if they were unrelated individuals, or jointly -- whichever would result in the lower tax burden. Only last-minute lobbying by the Family Research Council and a few individuals, including several marriage buffs on key congressional staffs, prevented this idea from becoming law.

Which brings us finally to President Bush. His proposal for reducing the marriage penalty in 2001 is to go back to 1981 and permit the second earner in two-earner couples to deduct 10 percent of income, up to $ 30,000. In purely economic terms, this is a fairly small move. But it is rooted in the same bad thinking that has haunted this issue for decades. Such a shift in the tax code would be economically regressive, primarily benefiting comparatively affluent, two-earner couples. By encouraging spouses to join the paid labor force, and by shifting a greater share of the total tax burden onto one-earner couples, such a law would create greater disincentives for at-home motherhood and for all other forms of unpaid work in families and communities. More broadly, by moving us closer to an individual, as opposed to family, basis for taxation, such a policy would discourage the economic and personal interdependence that is at the heart of marriage.

There are several ways to eliminate the marriage penalty properly, without undermining marriage as an institution. The details vary, but the essential idea is to treat married couples as joint economic partnerships, just like other legally recognized economic partnerships, permitting them fully to share their income for purposes of taxation. Congress actually adopted something very close to this in 2000, only to have the legislation vetoed (mostly for extraneous reasons) by President Clinton. So a genuinely pro-marriage solution is readily available for anyone who wants it. But it would be better to do nothing about this problem than to do what President Bush is now proposing.