Updating the Welfare State: Marriage, the Income Tax, and Social Security in the Age of Individualism
64 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2013 Last revised: 25 Oct 2013
Date Written: October 24, 2013
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.
Keywords: income tax, taxation, Social Security, spousal benefit, joint filing, individual filing, household filing, marriage
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