The High Price of Being Single in America

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Over a lifetime, unmarried women can pay as much as a million dollars more than their married counterparts for healthcare, taxes, and more.

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In 2007's 'I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,' Kevin James and Adam Sandler play two straight firefighters who enter into a domestic partnership to get the tax benefits. (Universal)

In October 2009, New York Times reporters Tara Siegel Bernard and Ron Lieber compared a hypothetical married couple with an equivalent-earning unmarried gay couple, to see just how much difference those extra privileges made. Here's what they found:

In our worst case, the couple's lifetime cost of being gay was $467,562. 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.

This is unfair. The solution? Bernard and Lieber argue that "the federal government [should legalize] same-sex marriage." But in fact, legalizing gay marriage only solves the problem for a few. Many more single people (gay and straight)—more than half of the population—continue to suffer from institutionalized singlism, the discrimination of individuals based on marital status.

U.S. Federal Code Title 5 Part III says: The President may prescribe rules which shall prohibit... discrimination because of marital status. 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.

One reason these policies exist is to encourage people to get married, because being married was—and still is—considered a social good. Some have suggested that marriage makes people healthier and happier, but critics such as Dr. Bella DePaulo have pointed out that most studies show that, in the long term, there is little to no difference between married and single people in terms of health, happiness, or personal responsibility. Additionally, these studies are often poorly designed, consider data sets that are not representative of the general population, or fail to consider alternative hypotheses—for example, people who are already happy might be more likely to become married, or happiness might come from having close interpersonal relationships, which may or may not include a spouse. Whatever the truth might be about marriage's effects, we the authors would like to redraw the lines of discussion and argue that policy-makers need to reject policies that take into consideration an individual's marital status, because such policies are discriminatory.

As two straight women with no desire to get married, we are not against marriage per se. We're not callous and repressed man-haters. We're not bitter about ex-boyfriends who cheated or tried to teach us the correct way to pour laundry detergent (ok, well maybe a little bitter about that last one). We're not even necessarily uncomfortable with the institution's arguable gender expectations and socio-political history. We just don't much care whether we're married, or not. But governments and corporations do.

We decided to determine a person's lifetime cost of being single by paralleling Bernard and Lieber's general approach. So, blissfully unaware of the morass of math awaiting us, we created four characters living in Virginia: two single women and two married women of equivalent means. The single women made $40,000 and $80,000, as did their married counterparts. The two salaries represent relatively middle and high-income levels in Virginia, where 2011 per capita income was $44,700 statewide. So far, so good. Then we broke out the calculator.

Our married women's husbands worked too, earning $51,000 and $103,000 respectively. (The husbands' salaries to reflect the fact that a woman earns 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, although this is the median rate for all women and in fact black and Hispanic women are paid even less.) We assumed the married women filed jointly with their husbands (generally more advantageous than filing separately). We imagined that our characters worked in Virginia from ages 26 to 66 and then lived for another 20 years after retirement. We chose to examine one year in their lives and extrapolate the lifetime impact from their finances for that particular year.

We quickly realized that our experiment could not be comprehensive. Had we looked more closely at a longer time period, we might have seen some fluctuations. Because we didn't have the resources to run 900 income tax returns over 50 years, as Bernard and Lieber did, we left out many complicating factors of the single-versus-married filing-status dynamic. We did not factor in the differences between a married woman with a working husband and a married woman with a stay-at-home husband. Nor did we consider the high probability that our characters would change or lose jobs several times, and/or receive pay increases throughout their lifetimes. And we didn't consider the expenses of children (though for the record single women bear more of a financial burden of raising children, compared to married women). We did not address the high likelihood that our married women would get a divorce or outlive their husbands. A comparison of single versus married men would also likely return different results.

So, what did we examine? The primary areas where government and corporate policies have institutionalized discrimination against single people: income taxes, Social Security, and IRAs. We also looked at discrimination that is not officially institutionalized: housing and health spending. Singles have little choice but to expend more in these areas out of practical necessity.

Here's the breakdown:

Income Taxes

Normally, married couples can save thousands of dollars just by filing jointly instead of separately. Those thousands are largely the direct result of federal and state laws that privilege married people.

First, we wondered how much our characters would spend in one year in income taxes. We figured this out with the help of a tax professional, who focused on the taxes the women paid during their working careers.

In 2010, our single woman earning $40,000 paid $6,181. Her married peer paid more than a thousand dollars less: $5,162. The contrast became more dramatic as our subjects' incomes increased: our single woman earning $80,000 paid $16,125, whereas her married counterpart paid almost four thousand dollars less per year. (The numbers for 2011 were similar: our marrieds paid $963 and $3,875 less.)

Here are the numbers extrapolated from income hypothetically earned over 40 years, based on the 2011 rates:

Our single woman earning $40,000 per year paid $245,000 in income taxes. Our married woman earning $40,000 paid $206,000 in income taxes—a difference of $39,000.

Our single woman earning $80,000 per year paid $645,000 in income taxes. Our married woman earning $80,000 paid $490,000 in income taxes—a difference of $155,000.

At this point in our calculations, we each wanted to run out and get a husband, STAT. And the buttons on our calculator weren't even warm yet.

Social Security

Perhaps the most pervasive myth about unmarried people is that no one will care for them as they age. This fear is both ridiculous, and not. We ourselves feel it sometimes, even though we know that having a spouse and/or kids is no guarantee you'll die in satin sheets with the ocean breeze blowing through your window as muscular half-clothed but fully oiled young men fan your greying cheeks with palm fronds and place peanut butter cups between your lips (we will not say which of us has this particular fantasy). But being married does in many ways make planning and saving for the future easier—simply because society provides more such options for married couples. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Social Security.

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Lisa Arnold & Christina Campbell

Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell are the founders of Onely.org, a website about being single today.

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