Alex Blaze

Marriage, money, discrimination, and the New York Times

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 05, 2009 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: class benefits, finance industry, heterosexual privilege, marriage, money, New York Times, race

The New York Times has an interesting article up about how much more it costs to be a same-sex couple than a heterosexual couple over a lifetime, considering additional expenses when it comes to retirement, health care, and income tax. It's a good read, but I can't help but notice that the assumptions they placed on their hypothetical couples were quite restrictive and thus removed their exercise from the reality of coupledom of any sexuality. They assumed:

  1. The couples would find one partner that they would either marry or want to marry and stay with that same person until their average life spans came to an end.
  2. They would have two biological children, although only costs of artificial insemination for a lesbian couple were included. Adoption for anyone wasn't considered.
  3. The couples would all be college-educated.
  4. Anyone making $70K or more had health care that covered most of their medical expenses, and they didn't get sick and rescinded, even if they bought insurance on the individual market.

Then the factors that were simply eliminated - race, gender, natural talents, religion - would affect the results, but it's hard to do this exercise if we assume that these people are anything other than statistical averages.

And the assumptions are understandable in a way. When it comes to feature and op-ed writing, the NY Times knows its target audience and caters to them (and then they complain that no one cares about them losing business when they've never cared about serving a wide audience, just a captivated audience). It totally makes sense to discuss a couple that makes $140,000 a year to represent all same-sex couples everywhere considering those are probably the only queers their target audience interacts with.

All that aside, the effects of discrimination are, of course, material and manifest. In their example, they discussed two same-sex couples, one "best-case scenario" and one "worst-cast scenario." The best-case earned $28,595 less than a comparable heterosexual partner, and the worst-case earned $211,993 less than a comparable heterosexual partner.

What was the difference between the best and worst cases? The best case was a couple where each person made $70,000 a year; the worst-case was a couple had one person making $110,000 a year and the other making $30,000 a year. A good part of the difference between best and worst came from the fact that straight, married couples that make about the same amount of money pay more in taxes than if they were to file as single people.

It reminds me of an earlier post by Nancy Polikoff about how the income tax structure for married couples is set up to favor couples where one person earns a lot more than the other. In other words, the government uses income taxes to promote the "traditional" family set-up, even on straight married couples that might either feel liberated enough for both to work or have enough need for money for both people to work full-time.

The Times editorialized through quotations from others:

Married heterosexual couples with two working spouses with similar incomes often pay more in federal taxes than if they remained single because of the so-called marriage penalty. This occurs when a couple's combined income pushes them into a higher tax bracket than they would have been in if they filed as singles. But some couples -- especially those with a wide disparity in income or with a stay-at-home parent -- usually pay less when they file jointly. They benefit from what's known as a marriage bonus. [...]

In our best case, where the partners each earned $70,000, the gay couple paid $112,146 less in income taxes. "That is the marriage penalty rearing its ugly head," Mr. Williams said.

Let's not go crazy. The entire article discusses the financial benefits of being married. It's only fair that married couples should pay a little more in taxes to make up for the stuff they get in other ways, like retirement benefits and family health care. What's unfair is the fact that married couples where both people make about the same amount of money are penalized because they didn't leave makin' the bacon to the man and the child-rearin' to the woman.

Like I said above, the article is interesting, and I have no doubt it'll get repeated and used (as it should) to evidence the disparities marriage creates between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The real lesson, though, is that marriage creates all sorts of inequalities and if we think the only way it divides people is between gay and straight, then we've got another thing coming when same-sex marriage gets legalized.

Or we won't. Perhaps when same-sex marriage finally makes it to same-sex couples, we won't care all that much that it's unequal in all sorts of other ways. While it's simpler to write an article with the restrictions used by the Times, most people don't live the lives described in the article. People are marrying later, divorcing sometimes multiple times in their lives, people die early and their widows remarry, medical crises occur and people get screwed over, even if they're on the health care plan their partner is on.

Honestly, I don't know a single college-educated same-sex couple that partnered up by age 30, had two (and only two) biological kids together, and stayed together until they died in their 70's or 80's. There obviously aren't any statistics on this subject, but it seems like the Times chose to focus on a lifestyle that very few of us choose to participate in and that fewer and fewer straight people are participating in. It's an odd way to compare same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

What does it say about us, or the Times, that this is the way they chose to represent same-sex couples? The only way to look at this family set-up, since it's not the most common (or the most simple; they could have just looked at someone who stays single and has no kids), is that it's still the ideal, still the norm by which all other families are compared.

And how does that work when it comes to messaging? While these financial issues affect all income brackets, if all people see about same-sex couples is that they're college-educated and make $140,000 a year, they're just not going to get why legal discrimination is wrong. This article is the sort of thing that gives people the impression that same-sex marriage is a concern of the rich and insulated in the community.

If a couple makes $140,000 a year over their lives (just a little more than the median family income of $45,000 a year), then I have trouble feeling sorry for the fact that they have to pay a little more in taxes, or around $28,000 in various expenses over the course of their lives. Maybe I'm just a little dead inside, or maybe I'm just a little mean, but I just don't find their plight sympathetic, and I think lots of straight Americans are living under the same false impression and aren't going to be disabused of it any time soon.

(It's also odd that in an article entitled "The High Price of Being a Gay Couple," which implies that they're trying to calculate the monetary effects of homophobia, that they completely ignored job discrimination. You want to know why we have less money? Income's a good place to start.)

It would be nice if they repeated this study looking at a couple that makes the real American average (and possibly a couple that lives at 200% the poverty line, or even, gasp, in poverty). And maybe with a couple where both people were previously married. Or with families that have kids but never marry. Or a single parent with kids. If we want to discuss homophobia, let's see how it plays out in all sorts of situations so it doesn't seem at first glance to be a product of having a college degree and a family income of $140,000.

Because this is a good exercise for when it comes to understanding how economic policy plays out in the real world. Are there financial whizzes out there willing to expand it?


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Thanks. The piece irritated me, and keeps popping up in my inbox and my FB feed, so it continues to irritate me on a daily basis, but I hadn't the energy to take it on.

I agree with your analysis on the issues regarding queers, but was also glad to see this bit: "When it comes to feature and op-ed writing, the NY Times knows its target audience and caters to them (and then they complain that no one cares about them losing business when they've never cared about serving a wide audience, just a captivated audience)." Funny, because I plunked down $6.00 for this week's Sunday edition of the NYT - and I don't think I need more than 10-15% if it. Your comment is dead on. There can be problems with taking on too wide an audience, of course, but the Times in particular seems cluelessly insulated. This article is typical of their "reporting," which does little more than reproduce the class privilege of staff, writers, and presumably well-off audience (the fact that one of their finance writers is in fact struggling with colossal debt troubles their class privilege not one whit; it only seems to reinforce it).

In the matter of gay marriage, they have apparently decided that it is *the* civil rights issue for now, and nothing will persuade them to do anything more nuanced than the usual "We love the (rich) gays, and that makes us good liberals, yay!" position.

Well, there's the march coming up, so who knows - maybe they'll actually acknowledge that there's more than one kind of queer in the room, but I'll be surprised.

Yeah, how many articles since the financial crisis have started have been about millionaires and park avenue families having to go without a yacht or having to ask the price of things before purchasing them? And before that, how many articles did they do about ivy league schools (as opposed to community colleges), vacations all over the world, and how banksters spend their money?

Their star columnist is Thomas Friedman, who recently threw a fit over the fact that his expense account was going to be reviewed, and that should say everything. It wouldn't be so bad, though, if they didn't say that the problem with the rise of internet journalism and commentary means that poor people are left behind.

I guess I am just tired of having our bodies, our lives and our relationships monetized. If the country can only count our worth and pain in dollar bills then we are truly lost.

I completely agree with a lot of your points, especially how the Times seems only concerned with college educated, upper middle class folks. What I don't understand is your suggestion that they compare single people with no kids instead of couples.

As far as I know, there is no way in which single people with no kids pay different tax rates, get different benefits or pay different prices for goods and services depending on their sexual orientation. So what would the point of such a comparison be? That if we would just stay single, we wouldn't face financial discrimination? I'm not sure that's helpful.

Sam, thank you for the invitation to clarify what I meant. (That's a Michele O'Mara-ism that I love, BTW, and mean it sincerely.)

What I was referring to with that part was the fact that the times was obviously not looking for the simplest situation, which might be an excuse for not considering divorce, lay-offs, rescissions, etc. If they wanted to choose the simplest situation to financially analyze homophobia, they could have chosen a single person with no kids. Or, if they wanted only to talk about coupledom, they could have tried comparing couples with no kids.

In the end, I think it would be great if this analysis was redone looking at all sorts of situations, like single people with no kids, single people with kids, couples with no kids, couples who make less money, couples who don't get insured at work, binational couples, etc. We might not always get the response we want, but if we're trying to quantify homophobia in dollar terms, we should look beyond these specific situations.

Because even single people experience homophobia. It might not be different tax rates (although the best-case gay couple ended up significantly on top when it came to taxes compared to a comparable straight couple), but job discrimination, bullying at school, etc., all affect the bottom line.

Not that I want to make this entirely about our monetary value or about our contribution to capitalism, but single people do, actually, subsidise the lives of coupled people, especially those with kids,in a myriad ways.

For a detailed picture, check out Bella DePaulo's site:

http://www.belladepaulo.com/

She also has a blog on Psychology Today,

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/living-single/200910/the-high-price-being-single

and here's just a little bit from a piece by her:

"In every category that the reporters analyze, singles are shortchanged. They do not have access to health insurance through a partner's plan. They don't have access to anyone else's Social Security benefits. Singles cannot even give their own benefits to any survivor in their own generation, even though they may have worked for those benefits for the same number of years and the same level of accomplishment as a married colleague (whose benefits do go to the surviving spouse). Singles cannot transfer unlimited assets without paying estate taxes. They do not receive pension benefits from anyone else and no one else can contribute to their I.R.A. And on and on.

Singles don't come out ahead on income taxes either, despite what you may have heard. That so-called "marriage penalty" is calculated by comparing two sets of couples - one unmarried and one married. A single person reporting the same taxable income as a married couple filing jointly always pays more in taxes. Remember that married couples can be rewarded with those lower taxes even if only one spouse works, so it is not just a matter of comparing two workers to one."

I think the point to be made, forcefully, is that we should consider how various people are short-changed, regardless of their sexual orientation, not because of it. That would lead to a more equitable system, including, who knows, universal health care that wasn't tied to your marital or partnership status (it doesn't help if you're unmarried but can only get insurance through a domestic partnership).

Also - and I only just saw this through DePaulo's blog - Nancy Polikoff has an astute analysis of the piece as well:

http://beyondstraightandgaymarriage.blogspot.com/2009/10/cost-of-being-gay-couple-new-york-times.html