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Onely’s Adventures in Accounting: The Math of Marital Status Discrimination September 22, 2012

Posted by Onely in As If!, Heteronormativity, Your Responses Requested!.
Tags: , , , , ,

Phew, pant pant pant. We at Onely almost missed National Unmarried and Single Americans Week!  (Lisa says it’s because she was too busy having fun as a single person.) And indeed, lately there have been a ton of articles (“All the Single Ladies,” “A Confederacy of Bachelors”) in big media about how single people are happy being single (gasp!). Which is good.

But it’s not enough to celebrate social aspects of being single. These articles about the Rise of Satisfied Singles, while important, don’t address the underlying problem of how our society views singles:

Discrimination against unmarried people is institutionalized in government laws (and by corporate policies, which follow the government’s lead).

Take, for example, the unmarried Canadian soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. If he had been married, his spouse would have gotten Death Benefits of $250,000. But because he had no spouse, that $250,000 remained in government coffers to be given to a married person. His and other parents challenged this practice, protesting that in the absence of a spouse, the money could just as easily be allocated to them.

Do you think these parents are

A) Justified;

B) Hmmm, what an interesting idea;



If you answered A, then you understand why we at Onely believe marriage as a legal institution is overvalued and oversanctified. If you answered C, then you’d better stop reading now. We are going to prod at your stale paradigms – with the sword of mathematics. En guard!

We’ve never done the math of Marital Privilege. No one has. Until now.

But first, some background: We’ve railed against Marital Privilege both on this blog and on Psychology Today, Professor, What If, Change.org, and other venues. We use the term Marital Privilege to represent the institutionalized discrimination that governments levy against unmarried people.  Because this problem had no name, we at Onely had to appropriate the term Marital Privilege. It originally referred to the U.S. law that says spouses cannot be forced to testify against each other in court. This is just one of over 1,000 U.S. federal laws that provide married couples with financial and legal benefits, some quite bizarre, that single people don’t receive. Moreover, often unmarrieds end up subsidizing the marrieds.

But just how much do these federal policies cost an unmarried person, from birth to death? Lisa and I wondered. We tried to find the answer in a famous web search engine. We realized no one has ever answered this question. We realized we would have to. . .gasp. . . figure it out ourselves. And so we did.

We were so shocked we considered going out and finding husbands, any old husbands.

Copious Readers, in the time-honored tradition of jelly bean jars, we challenge you to guess how much more money a hypothetical single woman living in Virginia and making $80,000/year would likely spend over her lifetime, compared to her married peer.

Our calculations addressed disparities in Social Security, income tax laws, health insurance policies, and more. Remember that we are not a team of accountants, but only two people. So we had to make a certain number of controlled simplifications. For example, we only created female characters, even though single men face much of the same discrimination. In addition, our characters received no raises in their entire lives, which made things hard on them but easier on us. Nonetheless, our resulting figures were accurate and representative of the level of discrimination against unmarried people.

So – how much more did our single woman pay than our married woman?

We will reveal the answer at a later date. Our reader whose guess is closest will be invited to write a guest post on Onely describing how one or more of these discriminatory laws has impacted his or her life.

–Christina and Lisa

Photo credit: ott1mo


1. s1ngal - September 22, 2012

Do u want in percentage or the numbers??? I mean I’d like to take the wildest guess!!!

Onely - September 25, 2012

Hmmm . . . . interesting. We did it in straight numbers, but I guess one could put forward a ratio as well. Though we were in this case expecting guesses in numbers. CC

2. Claire Whitmore - September 22, 2012

I can’t even begin to guess. I’m horrified by the probable answer you are going to give.

Onely - September 25, 2012

That’s ok, Claire, we horrified ourselves. = )

3. tehomet - September 22, 2012

Goodness only knows. At least eighty thousand dollars?

Onely - September 25, 2012

Thanks for playing, Tehomet. But that is too low, according to our calculations. However, because you have been one of our loyal Copious Readers for a while now, if you would like to do a guest post anyway about how you were affected by one of these laws (or a similar law in whatever country you are from), please contact us at onely@onely.org
(Editing to note that Tehomet has previously said she is in Ireland.)

4. Alan - September 23, 2012

I was thinking about the Canadian soldier and death benefits…

I would presume that death benefits are, like life insurance, supposed to support dependents. Thus if you have no dependents then a death benefit really isn’t necessary.

Granted, being married doesn’t mean you have dependents. And being single doesn’t mean you can’t have them.

RachelAB - September 23, 2012

I think it goes even further: The dependent included the wife! So, as the Law Commission of Canada argued in their Beyond Conjugality report, instead of supporting outdated family structures hardly anyone is still living in, we need to think about what we actually want to support or avoid. Do we want all children, for example, to have a decent education or just the children of Canadian soldiers who died?

Onely - September 25, 2012

“Do we want all children, for example, to have a decent education or just the children of Canadian soldiers who died?” Well told, Rachel, well told. CC

Onely - September 25, 2012

P.S. Rachel, if you have any comments about the German federal-level laws that discriminate against singles, we would love for you to share either here or in a guest post.
CC & Lisa

5. Bridget Harrington - September 23, 2012

Probably close to 300K. Unmarried people pay the highest tax rates. You own a home alone or rent alone, you shoulder all the costs. You can have children without being married, but if the father is in the child’s life, the usual arrangement is that you take turns taking the tax credit. Single person insurance plans are often more expensive than family plans. I take the stance of “it’s only money.” I live frugally. I can always make more or cut another budget item. But I have been divorced and in inappropriate-for-me / bad relationships. The emotional cost is higher. Since gay marriage is legal in my state, the only way I would marry again is to a woman. The emotional drama/costs of a straight relationship are too high. As to the government, death benefits should go to the next of kin, like insurance policies. Someone close to you still needs that money to settle your affairs and provide for your dependants, if you have any. Many unmarried men have kids they leave behind.

Onely - September 25, 2012

Thanks for playing, Bridget! As of now you are our closest guesser, but the contest is going to continue for a while yet. Although you made many excellent points, in the end your estimate still came out too low. = )

6. guatli - September 23, 2012

To add to what Bridget said, if you get very ill as a single, you usually have to pay to have help at home. There is no one you can appoint to care for you because no one can take advantage of Family and Medical Leave Act (unless you have a grown child). According to the government, singles have less of a right to be cared for than marrieds. Home care costs a great deal! Considering that, along with all of the other ways singles are expected to pay higher costs, I can only imagine the difference in amount paid over a lifetime is HUGE for singles compared to marrieds. I can’t wait to see your numbers, Christina and Lisa!

Onely - September 25, 2012

Guatli, Thanks for bringing up the topic of singles and healthcare. This is a topic close to my heart and I just haven’t had the time to really get into the weeds about it, politically or rhetorically. What I always complain about is how (the US goverment at least) keeps disability payments rock-bottom, way below living wages, because they know there will be no hue and cry because 1) sick people are too sick to raise a ruckus and 2) many people on disability rely on a spouse’s supplementary income, making them less likely to raise a ruckus.

So yes, this and other health issues can be a huge suck on a singles’ budget. In the end, because too many factors were involved and because healthcare discrimination doesn’t always stem directly from federal legal biases (as, say, with income tax), Lisa and I didn’t really include healthcare into our calculations much, thus making our final figure even more conservative–and therefore even more startling.

7. Beth ODonnell (@beth_odonnell) - September 25, 2012

$150,000 would be about $3K per year more over a working lifetime, all things being static.

Onely - September 25, 2012

Hi Beth,
We did indeed make many things static in our calculations, as otherwise we felt ourselves getting into “butterfly flapping its wings” territory. Moreover, we only based our numbers on discriminatory federal laws, not including state laws. I don’t even want to *think* about the kind of sums that would generate. = )

That said, thanks very much for playing, but your guess is too low. Don’t worry, before we began our experiment we would have estimated much the same figure.

8. Scott - September 28, 2012

My employer covers health insurance premiums for employees and their families. If I calculate my share (on a per employee basis) of their total health benefit expenditure and compare it with the cost of purchasing my own health insurance as a single individual, I find that I am being compensated at least $10,000/year less than the average employee with this benefit (and keep in mind that there are many single employees, so the discrepancy between single and married w/ dependents is actually substantially higher). Over a 40 year career, a $400,000 subsidy directly never-into-my-pocket is a conservative estimate. That’s merely health insurance benefits–not taxes, social security, etc.

Although I might be in an atypical situation in that regard, I would still have a very difficult time believing the actual “lifetime cost of being single without children” wasn’t well over a million dollars for the top 30% of wage earners ($50k/year and up).

Onely - October 1, 2012

Scott, you are our WINNER! Our most conservative calculations the answer is at least a million dollars. As our winner, would you be interested in doing a guest post on how any one of these disciminatory policies (maybe the health insurance premiums–a topic close to my heart and to yours as well, apparently yours)?

Scott - October 3, 2012

Thanks, Christina! I would be willing to try doing a guest post. How do I go about submitting it?

9. Nikki B - October 1, 2012

Do I even want to know?

Onely - October 1, 2012

No. You don’t.
So keep your eyes off Scott’s comment below yours and you may still be ok.
= ) CC

Nikki B - October 2, 2012

Oh. My. Gawd.

10. Richard Cheimison - October 8, 2012

I hate the government entirely, they are thieves and brigands; and I hate the military as their terrorist arm. So I couldn’t give a damn about that guy, and I also don’t want the government to be responsive to peoples’ desires because I want people to hate and undermine it.
So you picked a really shitty example to make your point with.

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14. al guy - January 17, 2013

Tax benefits and whatnot are investments the government makes in a family as well as rewards for honor. When people marry, they make a commitment before god and man, and this two part unit is the foundation of a family. Children are expenses. They require spending but bring no income. Believe or not, at one time you were an expense without bringing in any income either. Now carry it out to college. Does sending your son or daughter to college help you? No, it helps them to hopefully not grow up to a single person who does not have the honor to commit, or to see a commitment through, for better or worse, for richer or poorer. That million you are bickering about over a lifetime is spent in many cases by married people on their children before children move out on their own. Single divorced parents still get tax breaks for children, but sadly one or both of the parents could not live with honor and fulfill the commitment that they promised god and man that they would. The lack of honor screws up the children and creates expenses for all taxpayers. I think before you bicker about a married family that has honored thier commitment getting a meaningless tax break that doesn;t help a young couple buy diapers and formula, like your parents did for you, you should pay your parents back for everything they spent on you in present value. Pay them back for living in a larger place so there was room for you. Pay them for buying larger vehicles so you could fit too, pay them for everything first. Then at that point, you can start to bicker about a married family’s tax credits. If you want to be compared to an honorable married couple, learn what honor is, and live that way. You just might end up married. Oh yes, and two fellas or ladies cannot produce children. They are not a family unit and have no potential to create one. Although adoption is possible and being brought up in a gay household could be better than foster care, on their own, two gay parents cannot produce a family of children who will end up paying taxes their entire adult lives.This is where the gov’t investment part I mention comes into it. Giving gay unions a tax break is defeatest, and would be considered a reward with no possible return on the investment. Maybe if it is explained that way a person that does not understand honor would understand tax savings for marries couples. Hopefully from reading this you have a feeling of what honor is. Honor is what you saw when your parents fed you, clothed you, gave you all they can for nothing in return. They stayed together, bound by their honor, sometimes just for you, so that you could do better than them. That is honor people. Wake up and get over yourselves, look past yourselves long enough to love another, love another strong enough to make a commitment, and have the honor to see that commitment through, to the end. If you could think like that, you wouldn’t be here.

Algorithmus - January 29, 2013

Being married doesn’t guarantee having children. And couples that do have children get even more benefits anyways; I’ve read enough childfree blogs and articles from people complaining about the same things, including the fallacy that the only point in getting married is to have children (I’m sorry, but it’s not!). Marriage doesn’t in any way honor the concept of having children; maybe it did before, but it doesn’t anymore–so why do people get those benefits when the act of marrying by itself doesn’t in any way determine whether or not people are going to have children?

Secondly, I don’t for a second believe that people should need assistance from the government in providing for their kids. Adults should have the proper judgment to know the limits of their income and should be able to make informed decisions to know that children are not cheap, and if they don’t have the money to provide for them, then they have no business having kids. It is entirely the couple’s CHOICE whether or not they want children, and if they are going to have them, it is entirely their fault, their expenses.

Man, you have a weird idea of what honor is. Look, nobody chooses to become born. I am in no way responsible for my parents’ decision to have me, and had I not been born, it would be just the same. It is not an honorable thing to be paying back expenses for a choice that one could not possibly have made. Perhaps it might be considered generous, but not necessarily honorable (you also make the assumption that whatever parents you’re with couldn’t have done anything wrong with you, simply because they spent money on you or spoiled you.) No child is ever obligated to pay back money for his or her parents because he/she did not ask to be born. In fact, many people choose to bear children for selfish reasons; are you telling me that I have to pay people back for a choice I could not have made, but it was made anyways for mostly selfish reasons?

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