Why Should Married People Get Extra Support? Cont'd

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

A reader, Yvonne, just came across our discussion thread that questions why married couples should get more support than single people, including legal things like tax breaks and cultural things like wedding gifts:

This is something that has bothered me for the past few years and I’ve started to argue with organizations over it. For example, some museum memberships have an individual rate and a family rate. When the family rate covers two adults and children, why is the price not at least the cost of two individuals? It should at least cost 2.5 X the individual rate. Belonging to some organizations costs less per person if you are a couple. Why? Couples already save on rent, electricity, even phone plans.

When I talk to these organizations (and some I have quit belonging to) I ask, “Why do you discriminate against single people?” They will often say they don't, but I insist, “Yes you do, so why?”

I also don’t understand when people are asked how long they’ve been together they say “we’ve been married ten years” when they were together three years before that. Do those three initial years not count?I am in a long-term relationship (six or seven years) with someone I don’t want to live with and I don’t want to marry. I like living alone. I don’t think I should be penalized for that choice.

I do agree that there should be subsidies for children. If a married couple has kids, fine, give a tax break to them. But just the simple act of being married does not deserve any tax savings.

Another reader, Simon, thinks of the children less begrudgingly than Yvonne does:

I can see why single people feel that tax breaks for married people is unfair. The problem with that logic is that the intended beneficiary is not the individual, but the kids. Raising kids well is expensive in terms of time and money. Many countries provide state-financed, high-quality child care, medical care, and education. The U.S. policy is to cut a break to married people instead of having society foot the entire bill.

I don’t have the numbers at hand, but I’d guess that the tax breaks don’t come close to covering the costs of having kids. I know a gastroenterologist who spends $90,000 out of pocket to get his autistic kid to a specialist school and is hoping the county will cut him some sort of break.

The ultimate question is whether society should be footing the bill for kids, or whether that is the parents’ entire responsibility. I am (and always have been) a firm believer that there is societal interest. The economic literature shows that well-educated and adjusted kids are a huge net benefit to the society long term.

For example, countries that have comprehensive investment in high-quality child care and education tend to have a higher standard of living (see Germany, or Singapore). In Australia, the state contributes to private and parochial schools.  By comparison, poor kids in the USA get poor care and education, and as adults they are less able to compete for jobs than people who grew up in wealthier families, or from countries with a better basic standard of care.

Another reader quips:

Why did the writers of the tax code structure it to so heavily favor marriage? Because misery loves company.

Heh. One more reader, Becky, circles back to Brandon, the reader who countered the “single people are basically freeloaders” reader by detailing all the gifts married people get simply for being married:

One thing your bait-taking reader Brandon does to undermine his own argument is point to the enormous economic activity generated by weddings alone. It has long been my understanding that two married wage-earners who file joint taxes sometimes receive a tax bonus through this joint filing because, historically, family-style households have been seen to generate a lot more economic activity than households of one.

Ultimately though, I’ve come to the conclusion the main controversy here has little to do with taxes and household prosperity, and much more to do with the gross mud-slinging that is common between the married and single tribes.

Brandon provides a great example of how quickly people devolve from reasonable topics of contention (joint taxes) into defensive morality polemics about the suitability of other peoples’ choices. He states that “in my experience” the only people who need to invoke game theory economics to defend themselves (or their marital tax privileges) must be insecure losers in marriages so unworthy of validation that … that what exactly? That the person who you disagree with is pathetic and sad because you find the quality of their argument insufficient, and it is axiomatically the case that people who make insufficient arguments are pathetic and sad?

It’s easy to get married people to disdain the single for appearances of narcissism and it is easy to get single people angry at the married folks when you point out the status benefits and privileges marriage affords. Is a marriage tax bonus the same thing as a single-person tax penalty? Per usual, we are stuck in the mud where privilege politics clash with ideas of free will.