Tax Reductions, Tax Changes, and the Marriage Penalty

Posted: 21 Jan 2002

See all articles by James Alm

James Alm

Tulane University

Leslie A. Whittington

Georgetown University, Public Policy Institute (GPPI) (Deceased)


Policymakers have directed much effort towards reducing or eliminating the so-called "marriage penalty" present in the U.S. individual income tax. However, because the marriage penalty is frequently misunderstood, many suggested remedies do little to reduce the penalty, and in some cases even exacerbate it. In this paper we use the recent income tax reduction proposal of the Bush Administration to highlight some of the challenges involved in reducing the marriage penalty. Using representative couples with varying distributions of income and family structure, we contrast the marriage penalties under current tax law (as of May 2001) with those under the tax structure in the Administration's proposal. Our calculations indicate that it is certainly feasible to reduce the marriage penalty. However, our calculations also indicate that achieving this goal can be a difficult task, with tax reductions and other tax changes sometimes having unintended and unanticipated effects. In particular, the Bush tax plan does not eliminate the marriage tax, and in some cases actually makes the marriage penalty even larger than it is at present. In short, reducing marriage penalties is not as simple as reducing income taxes.

JEL Classification: H2, H24, J12, J18

Suggested Citation

Alm, James and Whittington, Leslie A., Tax Reductions, Tax Changes, and the Marriage Penalty. Available at SSRN:

James Alm (Contact Author)

Tulane University ( email )

United States
5048628344 (Phone)

Leslie A. Whittington

Georgetown University, Public Policy Institute (GPPI) (Deceased)


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