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Updating the Welfare State: Marriage, the Income Tax, and Social Security in the Age of Individualism


Anne Alstott


Yale University - Law School

October 24, 2013

Tax Law Review, Forthcoming
Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 276

Abstract:     
Marriage is no longer what it once was. Since the 1970s, and accelerating in recent decades, the link between formal marriage and family life has weakened dramatically. Nearly half of American adults are now unmarried at any given time, and two of five children are born to unmarried parents. At the same time, delayed marriage, divorce and remarriage, and changing gender roles have transformed the content of marriage itself. Despite these changes, the federal income tax and the Social Security system continue to define “family” based on formal marriage, and our casebooks teach students that the economic vulnerability of the married woman is the central problem of gender in welfare-state design.

In this article, I argue that the growing gap between legal fiction and social reality undermines the ability of the tax and transfer systems to achieve any of a range of objectives -- whether fostering individual freedom, aiding the poor, or shoring up the traditional family. Joint filing, for example, is no longer well-tailored to serve important social objectives, and this point holds whether one endorses the new individualism or, like many social conservatives, wishes to combat it. Similarly, the spousal benefit in Social Security no longer protects the most vulnerable citizens, or even the most vulnerable women, once we look past current retirees to future cohorts. Changes in gender roles within marriage and class patterns of marriage have shifted the burdens of gender inequality toward single mothers.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 64

Keywords: income tax, taxation, Social Security, spousal benefit, joint filing, individual filing, household filing, marriage

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Date posted: February 19, 2013 ; Last revised: October 25, 2013

Suggested Citation

Alstott, Anne, Updating the Welfare State: Marriage, the Income Tax, and Social Security in the Age of Individualism (October 24, 2013). Tax Law Review, Forthcoming; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 276. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2220322

Contact Information

Anne L. Alstott (Contact Author)
Yale University - Law School ( email )
P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.yale.edu/faculty/AAlstott.htm

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