The Marriage Penalty

Policy Backgrounders | Taxes

No. 145
Monday, February 09, 1998
by Bruce Bartlett


  1. Other factors contributing to the marriage penalty are the standard deduction, personal exemptions, the Earned Income Tax Credit, phase-outs for personal exemptions and the limitation on itemized deductions. See Congressional Budget Office (CBO), For Better or for Worse: Marriage and the Federal Income Tax (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), pp. 15-25.
  2. Dorothy A. Brown, "The Marriage Bonus/Penalty in Black and White," University of Cincinnati Law Review, vol. 65, no. (Spring 1997), pp. 787-98.
  3. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The Economic Status of Black Women: An Exploratory Investigation (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), pp. 100, 105.
  4. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, part 1 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), pp. 132-33.
  5. The following discussion draws heavily on Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), The Income Tax Treatment of Married Couples and Single Persons, Joint Committee Print JCS-17-80 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), pp. 19-25.
  6. For a discussion of the spread of community property laws and other means by which people attempted to exploit the opportunity to split incomes, see Carolyn C. Jones, "Split Income and Separate Spheres: Tax Law and Gender Roles in the 1940s," Law and History Review, vol. 6, no. 2 (Fall 1988), pp. 259-310.
  7. Michael J. Graez, The Decline (and Fall?) of the Income Tax (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 31.
  8. For details, see Stanley Surrey, "Federal Taxation of the Family - The Revenue Act of 1948," Harvard Law Review, vol. 61, no. 7 (July 1948), pp. 1097-1164.
  9. This legislation passed a Republican Congress and was enacted over President Truman's veto.
  10. For evidence that small marriage penalties existed for some taxpayers before 1969, see John Brozovsky and A.J. Cataldo II, "A Historical Analysis of the 'Marriage Tax Penalty,'" Accounting Historians Journal, vol. 21, no. 1 (June 1994), pp. 163-87.
  11. Grace Blumberg, "Sexism in the Code: A Comparative Study of Income Taxation of Working Wives and Mothers," Buffalo Law Review, vol. 21, no. 1 (Fall 1971), pp. 49-98; Joyce Nussbaum, "The Tax Structure and Discrimination against Working Wives," National Tax Journal, vol. 25, no. 2 (June 1972), pp. 183-91.
  12. This worked because for tax purposes a couple are regarded as married for the full year if married on December 31, and they are considered separated for the full year if divorced on that day. For these and other complications regarding whether a couple is or is not married for tax purposes, see Toni Robinson and Mary Moers Wenig, "Marry in Haste, Repent at Tax Time: Marital Status as a Tax Determinant," Virginia Tax Review, vol. 8, no. 4 (Spring 1989), pp. 788-819.
  13. Graetz, Decline of the Income Tax, pp. 35-38.
  14. Lynda S. Moerschbaecher, "The Marriage Penalty and the Divorce Bonus: A Comparative Examination of the Current Legislative Proposals," Review of Taxation of Individuals, vol. 5, no. 2 (Spring 1981), pp. 133-46.
  15. Harvey S. Rosen, "The Marriage Penalty Is Down but Not Out," National Tax Journal, vol. 40, no. 4 (December 1987), pp. 567-75; Douglas W. Mitchell, "The Marriage Tax Penalty and Subsidy Under Tax Reform," Eastern Economic Journal, vol. 12, no. 2 (April-June 1989), pp. 113-16.
  16. Daniel Feenberg and Harvey S. Rosen, "Recent Developments in the Marriage Tax," National Tax Journal, vol. 48, no. 1 (March 1995), pp. 91-101; Gregg A. Eisenwein, "Marriage Tax Penalties after the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993," CRS Report for Congress, 93-1000E (November 19, 1993).
  17. Anne L. Alstott, "The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Limitations of Tax-Based Welfare Reform," Harvard Law Review, vol. 108, no. 3 (January 1995), pp. 559-64; Edward McCaffery, "Taxation and the Family: A Fresh Look at Behavioral Biases in the Code," UCLA Law Review, vol. 40, no. 4 (April 1993), pp. 1014-20.
  18. Janet Novack, "The Worm in the Apple," Forbes (November 7, 1994), p. 98.
  19. The most recent research is summarized in Congressional Budget Office, "Labor Supply and Taxes," CBO Memorandum (January 1996); and Robert K. Triest, "The Effect of Income Taxation on Labor Supply in the United States," Journal of Human Resources, vol. 25, no. 3 (Summer 1990), pp. 491-516.
  20. Jerry Hausman, "Taxes and Labor Supply," in Alan J. Auerbach and Martin Feldstein, eds., Handbook of Public Economics (New York: North-Holland, 1985), pp. 247-49.
  21. Michael J. Boskin and Eytan Sheshinski, "Optimal Tax Treatment of the Family: Married Couples," Journal of Public Economics, vol. 20, no. 3 (April 1983), pp. 281-97.
  22. Daniel Feenberg, "The Tax Treatment of Married Couples and the 1981 Tax Law," National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 872 (April 1982).
  23. Nada Eissa, "Taxation and Labor Supply of Married Women: The Tax Reform Act of 1986 as a Natural Experiment," National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 5023 (February 1995); idem, "Tax Reforms and Labor Supply," in James M. Poterba, ed., Tax Policy and the Economy, vol. 10 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), pp. 119-51.
  24. Deenie K. Neff, "Married Women's Labor Supply and the Marriage Penalty," Public Finance Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 4 (October 1990), pp. 420-32.
  25. Martin Feldstein and Daniel Feenberg, "The Taxation of Two-Earner Families," in Martin Feldstein and James M. Poterba, eds., Empirical Foundations of Household Taxation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 39-73.
  26. James Alm and Leslie A. Whittington, "Income Taxes and the Marriage Decision," Applied Economics, vol. 27, no. 1 (January 1995), pp. 25-31; idem, "Does the Income Tax Affect Marital Decisions?" National Tax Journal, vol. 48, no. 4 (December 1995), pp. 565-72; idem, "Income Taxes and the Timing of Marital Decisions," Journal of Public Economics, vol. 64, no. 2 (May 1997), pp. 219-40; David L. Sjoquist and Mary Beth Walker, "The Marriage Tax and the Rate and Timing of Marriage," National Tax Journal, vol. 48, no. 4 (December 1995), pp. 547-48; Alexander Gelardi, "The Influence of Tax Law Changes on the Timing of Marriages: A Two-Country Analysis," National Tax Journal, vol. 49, no. 1 (March 1996), pp. 17-30.
  27. Leslie A. Whittington and James Alm, "'Til Death or Taxes Do Us Part: The Effect of Income Taxation on Divorce," Journal of Human Resources, vol. 32, no. 2 (Spring 1997), pp. 388-412.
  28. Boris I. Bittker, "Federal Income Taxation and the Family," Stanford Law Review, vol. 27, no. 6 (July 1975), pp. 1395-96; Jane M. Fraser, "The Marriage Tax," Management Science, vol. 32, no. 7 (July 1986), pp. 831-40; Marvin Chirelstein, Federal Income Taxation, 7th ed. (Westbury, NY: Foundation Press, 1994), p. 219.
  29. See Walter J. Blum and Harry Kalven Jr., The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).
  30. See, for example, Richard L. Doernberg, "A Workable Flat Rate Consumption Tax," Iowa Law Review, vol. 70, no. 2 (January 1985), pp. 425-85; Charles R. O'Kelley Jr., "Tax Policy for Post-Liberal Society: A Flat-Tax-Inspired Redefinition of the Purpose and Ideal Structure of a Progressive Income Tax," Southern California Law Review, vol. 58, no. 3 (March 1985), pp. 727-76; Curtis J. Berger, "In Behalf of a Single-Rate Flat Tax," St. Louis University Law Journal, vol. 29, no. 4 (June 1985), pp. 993-1027; Richard A. Epstein, "Taxation in a Lockean World," Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 4, no. 1 (Autumn 1986), pp. 49-74; Joseph Bankman and Thomas Griffith, "Social Welfare and the Rate Structure: A New Look at Progressive Taxation," California Law Review, vol. 75, no. 6 (December 1987), pp. 1905-67; Jay M. Howard, "When Two Tax Theories Collide: A Look at the History and Future of Progressive and Proportionate Personal Income Taxation," Washburn Law Journal, vol. 32, no. 1 (Fall 1992), pp. 43-76; Jeffrey A. Schoenblum, "Tax Fairness or Unfairness? A Consideration of the Philosophical Bases for Unequal Taxation of Individuals," American Journal of Tax Policy, vol. 12, no. 2 (Fall 1995), pp. 221-71.
  31. Alan J. Auerbach, Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Jonathan Skinner, "The Efficiency Gains from Dynamic Tax Reform," International Economic Review, vol. 24, no. 1 (February 1983), pp. 81-100.
  32. Charles Stuart, "Welfare Costs per Dollar of Additional Tax Revenue in the United States," American Economic Review, vol. 74, no. 3 (June 1984), pp. 352-62; Charles L. Ballard, John B. Shoven and John Whalley, "General Equilibrium Computations of the Marginal Welfare Costs of Taxes in the United States," American Economic Review, vol. 75, no. 1 (March 1985), pp. 128-38; idem, "The Total Welfare Cost of the United States Tax System: A General Equilibrium Approach," National Tax Journal, vol. 38, no. 2 (June 1985), pp. 125-40; Dale W. Jorgenson and Kun-Young Yun, "Tax Reform and U.S. Economic Growth," Journal of Political Economy, vol. 98, no. 5, pt. 2 (October 1990), pp. S151-93; idem, "The Excess Burden of Taxation in the United States," Journal of Accounting, Auditing and Finance, vol. 6, no. 4 (Fall 1991), pp. 487-508.
  33. Joseph A. Pechman, "The Future of the Income Tax," American Economic Review, vol. 80, no. 1 (March 1990), p. 1.
  34. Harvey Rosen, "Is It Time to Abandon Joint Filing?" National Tax Journal, vol. 30, no. 4 (December 1977), pp. 423-28; Alicia Munnell, "The Couple versus the Individual under the Federal Personal Income Tax," in Henry J. Aaron and Michael J. Boskin, eds., The Economics of Taxation (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1980), pp. 247-78; Pamela B. Gann, "Abandoning Marital Status as a Factor in Allocating Income Tax Burdens," Texas Law Review, vol. 59, no. 1 (December 1980), pp. 1-69; Laura Ann Davis, "A Feminist Justification for the Adoption of an Individual Filing System," Southern California Law Review, vol. 62, no. 1 (November 1988), pp. 197-252; Marjorie E. Kornhauser, "Love, Money, and the IRS: Family, Income-Sharing, and the Joint Income Tax Return," Hastings Law Journal, vol. 45, no. 1 (November 1993); Edward J. McCaffery, Taxing Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); and Lawrence Zelenak, "Marriage and the Income Tax," Southern California Law Review, vol. 67, no. 2 (January 1994), pp. 339-405.
  35. James Alm and Leslie Whittington, "The Rise and Fall and Rise...of the Marriage Tax," National Tax Journal, vol. 49, no. 4 (December 1996), pp. 571-89.
  36. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1997 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998), p. 59.
  37. CBO, For Better or Worse, p. 60.
  38. JCT, Income Tax Treatment, pp. 38-46.
  39. CBO, For Better or Worse, p. 55.
  40. For a discussion of other provisions of recent tax laws that exacerbate the marriage penalty for some couples, see David J. Roberts and Mark J. Sullivan, "The Federal Income Tax: Where Are the Family Values?" Tax Notes (October 26, 1992), pp. 547-50; Albert B. Crenshaw, "For Two-Income Couples, More Reasons Not to Get Tied," Washington Post (August 24, 1997); Janet Novak and Laura Saunders, "Torture By Taxation," Forbes (August 25, 1997), pp. 42-44; Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Kevin Hassett, "The Skyline Tax," The Weekly Standard (September 29, 1997), pp. 13-14; Janet Novak, "The Old Shell Game," Forbes (December 29, 1997), pp. 76-81; and Testimony of David Lifson, representing the American Institute for Certified Public Accountants, before the House Ways and Means Committee (January 28, 1998).
  41. Opponents of eliminating the marriage penalty have already made this point. See Jonathan Chait, "Penalty Box: The Folly of Fighting the Marriage Tax," The New Republic (October 20, 1997), pp. 14, 16.
  42. CBO, For Better or Worse, pp. 47-56; Jonathan Barry Forman, "What Can Be Done About Marriage Penalties?" Family Law Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 1-22.
  43. CBO, For Better or Worse, p. 56; Joint Committee on Taxation, Impact on Individuals and Families of Replacing the Federal Income Tax, Joint Committee Print JCS-8-97 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), p. 103.

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