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Jewish World Review August 6, 1999/ 24 Av, 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Silence on marriage penalty speaks volumes for women --
HERE’S THE KIND OF STORY you don’t come across every day: Conservative Republicans champion one of the most feminist pieces of legislation ever proposed in Congress. Hillary Clinton bashes the Republican initiative. Feminist groups are nowhere to be heard.

It’s a true story. The legislation in question would end or at least reduce the so-called marriage penalty, as part of the $792 million tax cut the Senate passed last week and President Clinton has promised to veto.

The marriage penalty is a peculiarity of our perplexing tax code: Two spouses’ combined incomes often push them into a higher tax bracket. Furthermore, the standard deduction they can take as a couple is smaller than what they would be allowed separately as singles. As a result of these and other provisions, 21 million married couples end up forking over an average of $1,400 a year more to the government than they would if they were single.

News articles on the subject often feature a vignette about a couple that was all set to tie the knot until they spoke to an accountant and learned about the cost of married bliss — and opted for unmarried bliss instead.

There’s another kind of marriage-penalty horror story that few social conservatives will tell. The story of the wife whose chat with the accountant reveals that, thanks to the vagaries of the tax code, her family loses money because she works, or that her paycheck is reduced to humiliating pin money. So she quits a job that may have given her a sense of self-confidence and accomplishment.

One little-known fact is that Ronald Reagan’s tax reforms greatly eased the extra bite on second incomes by putting in place only two tax rates (15 percent and 28 percent), though the number of rates has since been increased. Even Working Woman magazine, which rarely has praise for conservatives, noted that these policies encouraged the surge in middle-class women’s employment in the 1980s.

Most congressional critics of the marriage penalty blast the tax code as anti-marriage. More accurately, it’s anti-dual-earner marriage.

Couples with a sole breadwinner typically get a “marriage bonus.” There is a certain irony in the spectacle of conservative Republicans championing families that many on the right still consider “nontraditional.” And this irony has not eluded some traditionalists.

Columnist Maggie Gallagher declares herself in favor of a flatter tax code but warns that some Republican plans are too generous to two-career couples and hence unfair to homemakers. The result, she says, would be to “increase the illegitimacy rates (by lowering married childbearing) and boost slightly the divorce rate (since marriages with two full-time workers are particularly divorce-prone).”

Actually, the proposed reforms wouldn’t leave single-earner families any worse off than they are now. So it’s hard to see how married childbearing would be discouraged; rather, the current system may discourage some moms-to-be from marrying if they want to keep working. And the correlation between divorce and employment is far too complex to conclude that letting women keep more of their salaries would escalate family breakdown.

Meanwhile, the usual champions of working women are silent. Hillary Clinton proclaims that the Republican tax cuts would harm women, since they would come at the expense of fixing Medicare, which serves more women than men. Not a word about the marriage tax. Vice-President Al Gore says he favors reducing the marriage penalty; but of the two congressional proposals, he supports the one that would give couples a lot less of their money back.

The National Organization for Women doesn’t seem to have any thoughts on this issue. Would it be too unthinkable to say anything good about a Republican proposal? It’s also worth noting that NOW vocally opposes any plans to privatize Social Security, even though the current system is even more stacked against working wives than the tax code. It seems that for some feminists, economic opportunities for women are less important than hatred of tax cuts and love of Big Government.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©1999, Cathy Young