Nancy Polikoff

How about the whole story on taxes and same-sex married couples?

Filed By Nancy Polikoff | April 17, 2009 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Gary Gates, marriage, same-sex couples, Social Security and taxes

Gary Gates does amazing work. He is singlehandedly responsible for the wealth of knowledge we have about same-sex couples from census data. I turn to him for data for my own work. But his co-authored Huffington Post piece today doesn't tell the whole story about same-sex couples and taxes.

What he writes about is the unfairness of treating married same-sex couples as unmarried for purposes of federal law. Unlike GLAD's lawsuit challenging DOMA, he steers clear of examples of same-sex couples who pay more federal income tax because they are treated as single individuals. I'm figuring that's because he knows that for close-to- equal-earning same-sex couples, they do better being considered unmarried under federal law. The married couples who pay less in federal income tax are those who are the single-earner model, mirroring the husband-at-work and wife-at-home marriage that lawmakers had in mind when they enacted our tax code. I find it unjust that the tax system rewards such families at the expense of equal earners, whether those couples are gay or straight.

Gary Gates does mention Social Security. As I explained in an earlier post, our system of Social Security survivors benefits also favor the traditional, gendered model of a single, or at least one primary, income earner. Dual income married couples pay more into the system and get less out over the course of both their lifetimes than the traditional, gendered model. Race-based critiques of Social Security point out that since Black married couples are more likely to both work and to have more equal incomes, the current system disadvantages them.

What should the gay rights movement do? Rather than complain about our lack of access to a set of laws that benefits only some members of our community, how about we work with other groups who want to reform family taxation and Social Security rules for everyone? I wrote about this last year. I'd love to have something different to report for tax day 2010.

Cross posted from Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage

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You have put this into great perspective

I agree with you, Nancy, 100%. Achieving marriage equality will not solve tax equality problems as long as the tax code itself is antiquated and doesn't reflect the earning patterns of modern families, regardless of the genders involved in those families.

The possibilities for coalition-building could be interesting dynamics. The more liberal groups will be easy for us to work with (probably). But what about conservative tax reform groups that still oppose marriage equality and support DOMA: Will conservative tax reform groups work with us to reform the current code, at the same time claiming that even the new reforms should not extend to same-sex couples (that is, same-sex couples still shouldn't be allowed to marry under federal law)? And will we be willing to work with them under such conditions?

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

You wrote:
"The married couples who pay less in federal income tax are those who are the single-earner model, mirroring the husband-at-work and wife-at-home marriage that lawmakers had in mind when they enacted our tax code."

Was that a typo? Or were you meaning to say that the *heterosexual* married couples who pay less fit that model? Because for same-gender couples it is quite the opposite. It would seem that the people who fare *worse* under the federal income tax laws are the ones with disparate incomes, because each spouse is treated as single. This is particularly frustrating for same-gender married couples in which the non-earning partner is a student. Not only is the working partner taxed as a single person (meaning s/he pays a HIGHER tax rate), but the tuition credit also goes to waste because the student has little income.

The great irony of the tax discrimination is that for same-gender couples, those who make the least amount of money pay most dearly for the unfair treatment.

Yes I was referring to heterosexual married couples. I understand your example. I think we disagree, and this is the conversation I want the LGBT community to have about families and justice, including just tax laws. Right now, for heterosexuals, equal earining married couples lose and one-earner couples win. You suggest that this is okay and give the student example. I should tell you that I am part of a one-primary-earner couple and I would pay way less in taxes if my partner and I were married for federal law purposes. But that doesn't make it right. The reason the tax law doesn't change for heterosexual married couples --eliminating the $50 BILLION tax break that goes to one-earner married straight couples -- is that the right wing would rant on about penalizing those gendered families where mom stays home and raises the kids. All of US are subsidizing those folks. I don't think society should subsidize that family form for the few same-sex couples (like me!) who choose it.

The entire tax code needs to be rewritten, but I don't think that's going to happen any time soon. Oh, well!