You can add the IRS to the long list of institutions, including public schools and corporations, that still haven’t caught up with the reality that women work now too.
As Think Progress reports, married women who earn about the same as their husbands are hit with a big tax bill. And the more equal the spouses incomes are, the larger the penalty will be. These penalties happen across all income levels,
Compare this to how the IRS treats married couples where one spouse is the major breadwinner: they will never incur a penalty and almost always get a bonus.
The bias against dual-earner families is “a result of policies and presumptions dating back to the early 20th century that deliberately pushed married women to stay home,” USC law professor Edward McCaffery said in an oped on the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” last year. He suggested that this penalty works as a disincentive for poor people to get married and a disincentive for women from wealthier households to join the workforce. As for the middle class, the penalty functions as just another reason to feel squeezed between the I can’t afford to work (and pay someone else to watch my kids) and I can’t afford not to conundrum that many experience.
Good news. In the same “Room for Debate,” law professors Melissa Murray and Dennis J. Ventry say there is a solution that would make marrying tax-neutral:
Taxes could be assessed on everyone’s individual income rather than on aggregated family income. Under such a system (which prevails in other countries), marrying would be tax neutral and better reflect a modern, progressive society.
Of course making changes to the tax code is never easy, especially one that would reverse a long history of pro-marriage social engineering and lose money for the government at the same time. But a half-century of feminism has revealed that the family unit can do just fine outside of the male breadwinner model, and it is time our tax code supports that. With some cash money. I’m not tax expert or anything, but considering the sizeable tax breaks that the wealthy and large corporations still get, with the richest among us getting half of all savings from these breaks, I’ve got to imagine there is some wiggle room there.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
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