From Theory to Praxis: Marriage and Taxes through a GSS lens

As I prepare to pursue a Masters in Accountancy, it may be difficult to see how topics we discussed in GSS101 will connect to my future career. One of those topics was marriage and the reasons for and against same-sex marriage. Advocates often cited tax benefits as a “pro” for the passage of same-sex marriage, so I wanted to explore what tax benefits couples can receive when married versus not, and how the tax code may subtly discriminate against certain groups.

Married taxpayers can file either of two ways: either individually by the head-of -household or jointly, but only if the marriage is recognized. Before the 2015 Supreme Court Decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage, couples could not file their taxes jointly, and therefore may have been disadvantaged in the amount of taxes they paid. To determine how much someone pays to the government, every individual is placed in a bracket by the amount he or she earns. The tax code places married couples in brackets by the amount the couple earns together. In progressive tax structures, which many states and the federal government currently use, those in the higher income brackets are taxed at a higher rate. For joint filers, the 10 and 15% brackets, where most people tend to fall, are twice as wide, and the higher tax brackets are less than twice as wide, so a joint-filing couple might be more likely to fall into this lower tax bracket than two individual filers would.

Not all same-sex couples may benefit from joint filings. Married couples usually receive either a penalty or a bonus on their taxes. Penalties occur when a couple has to pay more taxes than it would if it filed individually, and bonuses occur when couples save money by filing jointly. When spouses earn similar and relatively high-incomes, they are more likely to receive a penalty. These penalties tend to occur because as joint filers, these couples are less likely to be able to take deductions for children, but if they separated into single and head-of-household, they would be able to receive deductions for dependents.

On the other hand, joint filers can also receive marriage bonuses, which most often occur when one spouse earns all the familial income. A joint filing would likely shift this couple into a lower tax bracket because the lower brackets are twice as wide and, therefore, incorporate even some high earners. In reality, those who make less money, like many LGBTQ individuals who felt same-sex marriage argument was only a battle for upper-class, white gays and lesbians, could benefit from a decrease in taxes if married. These people, however, were largely arguing against this very idea. They realized that the institution of marriage is all about protecting wealth, not love, and if LGBTQ couples want to “redefine love,” they should not feel the need to buy into the heteronormative institution of marriage. In examining this tax structure, I would argue that, beyond LGBTQ individuals, heterosexual women should also be more aware of the patriarchal assumptions that the tax code for joint-filers makes. While a heterosexual couple can still earn a marriage bonus if the woman earns most of the income, it is clear that those who have set up the code over the years have assumed that women would not earn an income, or at least not one that would be competitive enough to negate a bonus.

As we have learned, using a GSS lens can give a new perspective to the assumptions and subtle discrimination that exists in every part of our society. Even in progressive tax structures, ones that liberals fight to protect, discrimination, unfortunately, still exists, and if we intend to ameliorate this pervasive issue, we must at first recognize it. It will be beneficial to take this interpretation into my future career, as I may help people choose a filing, not necessarily just based on money, but also understanding their stance in their relationships.

Sources Referenced:

http://taxfoundation.org/blog/how-many-taxpayers-fall-each-income-tax-bracket

http://www.bankrate.com/finance/taxes/3-tax-traps-same-sex-couples-can-avoid-2.aspx

http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/what-are-marriage-penalties-and-bonuses

Beyond Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law

“A woman married to a man for nine months is entitled to Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies; a woman living for nineteen years with a man or woman to whom she is not married receives nothing.”[1] The debate over marriage equality for same-sex couples was one that took over the country’s social and political agenda in the early 2000’s. Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage challenges this agenda by asking both straights and gays alike to consider a broader definition of what constitutes a family and how this structure should be protected under the law. Those protected by the institution of marriage have privileged status in regards to tax benefits, estate benefits, government benefits, employment benefits, medical benefits, and death benefits among others. Polikoff calls for a revamping of family law; one that takes into consideration the changing nature of family units while also deemphasizing the status of marriage in our society.

Nancy Polikoff is a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. She teaches Family Law and a seminar on Children of LGBT Parents and has been writing about, litigating about, and speaking about cases involving LGBT families for the past thirty years. Her accomplishments include co-founding the Washington, DC Feminist Law Collective, supervising family law programs at the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and co-authoring one of the first law review articles on the custody rights of lesbian mothers. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage is Polikoff’s first book. She has a daughter in her twenties and lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

The first half of the Beyond Marriage gives the reader historical context as to how we got to the position we are in with marriage today. It begins with the advances made by the second-wave feminist movement in the context of marriage, and then describes how those advances have been attacked since the 1970s by the religious right. Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem and others are cited in this section, along with groundbreaking legislature like Title IX. From there, she moves into the gay rights movement and the intersection of lesbianism and feminism. Eventually she delves into the marriage movement of the conservative right and the how the push for preserving marriage as an institution for heterosexual couples strengthened marriage’s societal status. She then brings the reader to the contemporary fight for marriage equality, the most thorough part of the first half of the monograph.

Generally, there are two dominant perspectives in the contemporary marriage debate. First, there are those who support the institution of marriage and believe that opening it up to non-heterosexual couples will undermine social structure. Second, there are those who support equal access to marriage for LGBT individuals since they deserve the same access to benefits as married heterosexual couples. Throughout the book, Polikoff makes reference to groups on both sides of the argument. Frequently mentioned supporters of the marriage movement include The Institute for American Values, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Liberty Counsel. Those often mentioned on the side of marriage equality include Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. All of these groups fight for legislation supporting their side of the argument or represent individuals in relevant court cases. Polikoff separates herself from these prominent groups by taking a third stance. She questions the legitimacy of marriage as the necessary qualification for receiving legal benefits and questions whether it is fair to exclude so many other family forms by limiting such benefits. This allows her to reframe the debate over marriage by making the point that the benefits associated with marriage are not inherent, they have been constructed over time and have increasingly drawn a line between families formed through marriage and families formed through other means. By fighting for the right to marriage for LGBT couples, dominant organizations like the Human Rights Campaign are reinforcing the place of marriage in our society as cultural institution that unfairly awards rights to the married and leaves those who are unmarried out to dry. She enforces the argument that marriage is outdated and the benefits that accompany it were developed decades ago when having sex outside of marriage was taboo, illegitimate children were considered outcasts, and marriage had gender roles legally entwined within it. Through the examination of historical movements, she determines that people have changed the way that they view and structure their lives and the current marriage equality movement does not reflect this change.

The second half of the book is dedicated to describing specific aspects of her proposed approach, called “valuing all families,” to make marriage matter less. The most important aspect of this approach is identifying the purpose of specific laws that currently grant marriage-specific legal consequences. By understanding the specific objectives of these laws, relationships can be identified that would further the law’s objective without creating a specific special status for married people. In regards to this approach, she addresses health care, medical leave, medical care, domestic partner benefits, the dissolution of relationships, death, and economic compensation. Polikoff argues that by taking this approach, our society can move more towards a legal system based on the nature of care and dependency in relationships, not just the relationship’s specific name. Her solutions are not only for same-sex couples, they are also for people non-conjugal relationships, like unmarried elderly people, caregivers and the people they help, or friends living together. For instance, through this approach she examines the current family and medical leave practices of businesses across the country, supported by anecdotes of those who were not allowed such leave to care for an ill family member. Many medical leave policies are limited to caring for a spouse or child with serious illness and are often unpaid. Polikoff proposes support of the “Healthy Families Act,” a bill that provides seven days of paid leave per year “to care for a child, a parent, a spouse, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”[2] This kind of reform breaks down barriers and helps to redefine the law’s narrow definitions of family that do not accurately reflect today’s society.

Polikoff’s breadth of knowledge of her field is evident as she provides a comprehensive overview of legal history as it applies to social movements throughout the decades. This method is extremely effective in giving the reader context into the foundational aspects of marriage and establishing the true dividing line that it has become. By making interdisciplinary links through feminism, sexual liberation, class, and justice, her argument is multidimensional and looks at marriage through the views of different legal lenses. The inclusion of a significant amount of laws and court cases is appropriate since the nature of her “valuing all families” solution focuses on reforming these laws. In contrast to the formality of the included law, Polikoff includes many anecdotes and case studies throughout the monograph to explain how the law has failed certain families because of the marriage dividing line. These short stories help to break up the dense law material and make it easy to envision why her reform needs to be implemented in real world situations.

Although at first the idea of diminishing and eventually removing the significance of marriage in a society may seem radical to the general population, Polikoff’s presentation of her argument makes it seem truly possible and reasonable. She provides concrete solutions for reforming laws, many based at the state and local level, and also provides several examples of places where similar laws have been successfully enacted. Even with the abundance of case law, the Beyond Marriage is very much readable by those without Polikoff’s extensive background. This monograph is meant to reach a broad audience due to its increasing relevance, however, due to its connectedness with the marriage equality movement and gay rights, the audience becomes more limited.

Polikoff reinforces in Beyond Marriage that people should have the choice to marry based on their individual beliefs, whether they be cultural, spiritual, or religions in nature. It should not be a choice that people are forced into to obtain unique legal benefits that are specific only to marriage. The end goal of her efforts is a system in which marriage is not the rigid dividing line between who is in and who is out regarding family law, through her “valuing all families” approach. This monograph is a valuable resource for people in all family structures and can help our society move towards a legal system that helps improve the lives of all individuals and families.

Works Cited

Polikoff, Nancy D. Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

[1] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), Cover page.

[2] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 172.

Women’s Progress and the Future of Marriage: Review of Generation Unbound

American social norms surrounding marriage and family structures have undeniably exploded since the 1950s golden age of Ozzie and Harriet-style unions. Over the past five or six decades, the United States has experienced a rapid decline in marriage and an enormous rise in births to unmarried mothers, especially among poorer, less educated Americans. Family sociologists agree that, in general, childbirth outside of marriage objectively increases poverty levels and inequality for children. In her 2014 work Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage,” Isabel Sawhill explores the causes and consequences of these striking changes in the United States’ marriage culture. She presents the reader with several explanations for the societal developments, including economic changes due to deindustrialization and globalization and a general liberalization of norms surrounding sex and marriage. However, unlike her colleagues in the field of family sociology, Sawhill identifies changes in women’s role in society as the overwhelmingly most powerful catalyst in the decline in marriage and increased childbirth to unwed mothers. In turn, Sawhill’s solution to the consequences presented by these developments is also ultimately a feminist one, as she argues that men must accept women’s changing roles and agree to function in a more androgynous union with a non-gendered divison of labor.

Throughout the expository introductory chapters of the book, Sawhill joins the existing dialogue of her contemporaries, including Charles Murray, Bradford Wilcox, and Robert Putnam, to establish a fact agreed upon by all family policy analysts and family sociologists: marriage is objectively the most successful union for stable parenthood, but marriage as an institution is rapidly declining in the lower socio-economic classes in the United States. What the U.S. has developed, in turn, is a cycle of poverty that fosters unstable family structures and unstable family structures that foster poverty. Sawhill’s main impetus to research the topic lies in the welfare of children. Her main argument is that marriage has seen such a rapid decline in recent decades because of the relative social progress women have made and the subsequent change in women’s opportunities and gendered expectations. Sawhill sees these developments as undeniably positive ones; however, progress for women has led to unintended consequences for children, as children have no autonomy over what type of family structure into which they are born, but must suffer any consequences assiociated with an unstable family. Sawhill’s argument develops into a suggested remedy for the future, in which she proposes that the government subsidize long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to drive down the fertility of women drifting into motherhood with little active intention to do so.

Isabel Sawhill works at the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow in Economic Studies. She serves as the co-director of the Center on Children and Families, as well as the president of the board of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In recent years, she has focused especially on economically disadvantaged children in the United States, though throughout her life her research has examined various economic and social topics. She has extensively researched unplanned pregnancy, the economic consequences unplanned children face, and how the United States can best prevent unintended pregnancy.

Isabel Sawhill lays out her argument with extensive discussion and analysis of empirical, quantitative evidence representing the trends in marriage in twenty-first century America. Along with her contemporaries in the field of family sociology, Sawhill uses statistical evidence to determine that children fare best when they grow up in a household headed by their married parents. Despite marriages’ positive outcomes for children, though, Sawhill tells the reader that “marriage is on the wane,” going so far as to claim that marriage is an “endangered institution” (Sawhill 17-18). The bulk of her research is thus to explain why marriage rates have fallen so drastically; her findings bring her to the conclusion that “the changing status of women is the most important driver of changes in the family” (Sawhill 28). From the advent of the birth control pill, to increased numbers of women in college and the labor force, women have far more opportunities now than they did the so-called golden age of marriage, making them less inclined to marry, especially at a young age.

Sawhill also engages with her contemporary interlocutors by highlighting the growing class divide in family structures between the well-educated upper class and the less-educated lower classes. While women in the less educated, lower socio-economic classes have increasingly forgone marriage, while having children outside of marriage more and more often. However, women of higher socio-economic status are entering into so-called neotraditional marriages, which resemble 1950s-style unions, but are predicated on much greater egalitarianism between the husband and wife. Sawhill suggests several remedies to the negative consequences for children produced from what Sawhill considers unstable family structures. She argues that the U.S. government should subsidize long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to push down the fertility rates among the lower socio-economic classes in which fertility is high but marriage rates are low. She also supports increases in traditional government welfare programs to provide monetary and medical assistance to those in need.

The greatest strength of Isabel Sawhill’s work, I argue, is her introduction of a new explanation for the divergences in family structures in the United States during the past few decades. Her thesis, arguing that changes in women’s status in American society have been the greatest catalyst for breaking down the traditional family structure of the twentieth century, is an argument relatively untouched by Sawhill’s contemporaries. While family sociologists and policy makers have engaged in debate over the cause of changes in family structures, Sawhill presents a perspective unique from her colleagues by making her argument centered around the cultural shifts that occurred due to feminist movements. This argument strong and logical; the advent of accessible and relatively affordable contraception, the legalization on abortion through Roe v. Wade, no fault divorce, women’s increased presence in higher education institutions and improved status in the work force, etc. have all undeniably shifted marriage norms and structures (Sawhill26-30). She explains the bifurcation between upper and lower economic class families through the lens of gendered norms as well; well-educated, wealthy women are delaying marriage and childbearing while they gain education and profession status, but “at the other end of the economic spectrum, families are falling apart” (37). Sawhill explains this development as a result of lower-income men refusing to approach partnerships and marriage with an egalitarian view of gender.

Arguably Sawhill’s biggest weakness in her text is her explicit call to drive down the fertility rates of the less educated, lower income rungs of American society. Though she provides copious evidence that the instability present in many lower income families harms innocent children, her suggested remedies evoke the disturbing history of eugenics and birth control. Though Planned Parenthood provides undeniable benefits in 2016, and although Margret Sanger is often portrayed as a champion of women’s rights and social progress, we must remember the initial intentions of Planned Parenthood and birth control in general. While Sawhill herself may advocate purely on behalf of blameless children, her call for government-subsidized fertility control of less educated, poorer women threatens the agency of women on the sole basis of their economic status, as well as treading frighteningly close to outright eugenics. While children do unfairly suffer due to their parents decisions, we must always respect the agency and value of people regardless of their education attainment or economic status.

Overall, Isabel Sawhill provides an interesting and important commentary on the developments of marriage norms in the United States, with her predictions for the future and suggested remedies for the negative consequences associated with these changing social norms. The book exists in a field presumably off the radar of the average person, even among the more educated ranks. However, family structures and practices affect the future generation of thinkers, leaders, and influencers of our economy and society, and evidence shows us that the environment in which they are coming of age has a much greater affect on them than we may realize. Because Sawhill’s topic of analysis includes such a broad range of people—that is, all of American society—everyone could benefit from reading her text. I would openly recommend this text, but would explicitly suggest any reader to examine closely her remedies for the future and approach the work with a critical eye.

Sawhill, Isabel V. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2014. Print.