The New York Times has an interesting article up about how much more it costs to be a same-sex couple than a heterosexual couple over a lifetime, considering additional expenses when it comes to retirement, health care, and income tax. It's a good read, but I can't help but notice that the assumptions they placed on their hypothetical couples were quite restrictive and thus removed their exercise from the reality of coupledom of any sexuality. They assumed:
- The couples would find one partner that they would either marry or want to marry and stay with that same person until their average life spans came to an end.
- They would have two biological children, although only costs of artificial insemination for a lesbian couple were included. Adoption for anyone wasn't considered.
- The couples would all be college-educated.
- Anyone making $70K or more had health care that covered most of their medical expenses, and they didn't get sick and rescinded, even if they bought insurance on the individual market.
Then the factors that were simply eliminated - race, gender, natural talents, religion - would affect the results, but it's hard to do this exercise if we assume that these people are anything other than statistical averages.
And the assumptions are understandable in a way. When it comes to feature and op-ed writing, the NY Times knows its target audience and caters to them (and then they complain that no one cares about them losing business when they've never cared about serving a wide audience, just a captivated audience). It totally makes sense to discuss a couple that makes $140,000 a year to represent all same-sex couples everywhere considering those are probably the only queers their target audience interacts with.
All that aside, the effects of discrimination are, of course, material and manifest. In their example, they discussed two same-sex couples, one "best-case scenario" and one "worst-cast scenario." The best-case earned $28,595 less than a comparable heterosexual partner, and the worst-case earned $211,993 less than a comparable heterosexual partner.
What was the difference between the best and worst cases? The best case was a couple where each person made $70,000 a year; the worst-case was a couple had one person making $110,000 a year and the other making $30,000 a year. A good part of the difference between best and worst came from the fact that straight, married couples that make about the same amount of money pay more in taxes than if they were to file as single people.
It reminds me of an earlier post by Nancy Polikoff about how the income tax structure for married couples is set up to favor couples where one person earns a lot more than the other. In other words, the government uses income taxes to promote the "traditional" family set-up, even on straight married couples that might either feel liberated enough for both to work or have enough need for money for both people to work full-time.
The Times editorialized through quotations from others:
Married heterosexual couples with two working spouses with similar incomes often pay more in federal taxes than if they remained single because of the so-called marriage penalty. This occurs when a couple's combined income pushes them into a higher tax bracket than they would have been in if they filed as singles. But some couples -- especially those with a wide disparity in income or with a stay-at-home parent -- usually pay less when they file jointly. They benefit from what's known as a marriage bonus. [...]
In our best case, where the partners each earned $70,000, the gay couple paid $112,146 less in income taxes. "That is the marriage penalty rearing its ugly head," Mr. Williams said.
Let's not go crazy. The entire article discusses the financial benefits of being married. It's only fair that married couples should pay a little more in taxes to make up for the stuff they get in other ways, like retirement benefits and family health care. What's unfair is the fact that married couples where both people make about the same amount of money are penalized because they didn't leave makin' the bacon to the man and the child-rearin' to the woman.
Like I said above, the article is interesting, and I have no doubt it'll get repeated and used (as it should) to evidence the disparities marriage creates between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The real lesson, though, is that marriage creates all sorts of inequalities and if we think the only way it divides people is between gay and straight, then we've got another thing coming when same-sex marriage gets legalized.
Or we won't. Perhaps when same-sex marriage finally makes it to same-sex couples, we won't care all that much that it's unequal in all sorts of other ways. While it's simpler to write an article with the restrictions used by the Times, most people don't live the lives described in the article. People are marrying later, divorcing sometimes multiple times in their lives, people die early and their widows remarry, medical crises occur and people get screwed over, even if they're on the health care plan their partner is on.
Honestly, I don't know a single college-educated same-sex couple that partnered up by age 30, had two (and only two) biological kids together, and stayed together until they died in their 70's or 80's. There obviously aren't any statistics on this subject, but it seems like the Times chose to focus on a lifestyle that very few of us choose to participate in and that fewer and fewer straight people are participating in. It's an odd way to compare same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
What does it say about us, or the Times, that this is the way they chose to represent same-sex couples? The only way to look at this family set-up, since it's not the most common (or the most simple; they could have just looked at someone who stays single and has no kids), is that it's still the ideal, still the norm by which all other families are compared.
And how does that work when it comes to messaging? While these financial issues affect all income brackets, if all people see about same-sex couples is that they're college-educated and make $140,000 a year, they're just not going to get why legal discrimination is wrong. This article is the sort of thing that gives people the impression that same-sex marriage is a concern of the rich and insulated in the community.
If a couple makes $140,000 a year over their lives (just a little more than the median family income of $45,000 a year), then I have trouble feeling sorry for the fact that they have to pay a little more in taxes, or around $28,000 in various expenses over the course of their lives. Maybe I'm just a little dead inside, or maybe I'm just a little mean, but I just don't find their plight sympathetic, and I think lots of straight Americans are living under the same false impression and aren't going to be disabused of it any time soon.
(It's also odd that in an article entitled "The High Price of Being a Gay Couple," which implies that they're trying to calculate the monetary effects of homophobia, that they completely ignored job discrimination. You want to know why we have less money? Income's a good place to start.)
It would be nice if they repeated this study looking at a couple that makes the real American average (and possibly a couple that lives at 200% the poverty line, or even, gasp, in poverty). And maybe with a couple where both people were previously married. Or with families that have kids but never marry. Or a single parent with kids. If we want to discuss homophobia, let's see how it plays out in all sorts of situations so it doesn't seem at first glance to be a product of having a college degree and a family income of $140,000.
Because this is a good exercise for when it comes to understanding how economic policy plays out in the real world. Are there financial whizzes out there willing to expand it?