Does the 'Marriage Penalty' Apply to You?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

To find out, fill out this really quick interactive form created by FiveThirtyEight’s Ritchie King for last year’s tax season. A reader just flagged it for our debate over whether married people should get more support than single people, adding: “Not all people benefit from being married; depending on your circumstances, you will actually pay more taxes”—specifically, an estimated 38 percent of couples, according to economists James Alm and J. Sebastian Leguizamon.

Back to our reader back-and-forth, here’s Bethany:

Your second reader, Simon, gave some excellent arguments for giving support to people raising children, but what does that have to do with tax breaks for married people? Many married people either never have children or have grown children; many people have children who never were married or who are no longer married. If the idea is to support children, then eliminate the tax breaks for being married and increase the tax breaks for people with dependent children.

The only reason I can see for making tax breaks specific to marriage rather than parenthood is wanting to benefit married people regardless of their parenthood status—and I tend to agree that marriage brings plenty of benefits (financial and otherwise) already.

Jeremy, on the other hand, feels that “married people (at least those with children) should probably get even more support than they do already”:

Couples raising children are being doubly-taxed when it comes to, for instance, Social Security: They pay to support the current cohort of SS users, and then they pay to raise the next generation of workers who will support them when they get old. People without children are thereby going to free-ride, in a sense, off the future labor force they neither created nor paid to raise.

Here’s Clinton on another tangent of the debate:

Your reader Yvonne notes that museums and other institutions often sell memberships to families at disproportionately lower rates compared to those charged singles and asks why. I think there is just a cultural bias against singles (and I’m a guy whose been married over 20 years).

I can remember going to dances as a young single guy and paying more than if I were part of a couple ($3.00 per person, but couples were $5.00, for example). I was going to the dance in the vague hope of maybe meeting some nice girl, and being charged extra for the privilege while the people who had already found someone got discounts. No one could ever explain the purpose behind this discriminatory pricing beyond “Well, that’s just the way we’ve always done it, and hardly anyone complains.”

If you’d like to complain: