Marital bliss. It can be a splendid thing. A true partnership in all aspects of life. But it also can mean carrying a far larger tax burden than the rest of the country.

Don't worry. "Marriage penalty" notwithstanding, the IRS isn't targeting Americans because they're married. It's just that the demographics of marriage have changed so drastically in the last four decades that they are now being reflected in married couples' tax bills, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of IRS tax administration data.

Just how big of a change are we talking about? In 1970, 69 percent of adults were married. In 2014, that number had fallen to just half the country (50 percent). But, when you look at how much federal income tax was paid by married couples at those two points in history, it's clear that married couples are currently taking on a far larger share of the tax burden.

In 1970, the 69 percent of married adults paid 80 percent of all federal income taxes. The 50 percent in 2014? Seventy-four percent; just a six percent drop despite a 19 percent dip in those who filed taxes as married couples or individuals.

I recently spoke to Richard Fry, senior researcher at Pew Research Center. He told me that this has a lot to do with demographics, specifically the fact that married couples are more likely to also be college educated and command higher incomes.

"Those who are married are about 67 percent more likely to have a college degree than those who go unmarried, and since the 1970s, college-educated Americans have had significantly higher incomes and significantly higher taxable incomes," Fry explained. "So that's a big change to the married population that can explain those numbers."

In 2014, the average return filed by the married population, who Fry says represented 38 percent of tax-paying Americans, reflected an adjusted gross income (AGI) that was more than three times that of the average unmarried return ($115,100 compared with $35,200) - a gap that can be partially explained by the fact that many married returns are filed by two-income households.

"Another thing that has changed over time is that it's not just a matter of who is getting married, it's also who they marry. In the 1960s, a college educated man was much more unlikely to have a college educated wife," Fry said. "Now, college educated men are much more likely to marry college educated women who also work and whose earnings are progressing as well. So this shift to dual income households has accelerated married couples' income growth."

So, based on these facts, is this really a problem? Are married Americans at a disadvantage because of the heavier tax bill, or do they have an advantage due to their increased earning potential? Fry wouldn't comment on the policy implications, like whether married couples have a harder time buying a house, but did refer to being married as an economic "advantage."

In fact, Fry said that Americans, particularly men, are far more likely to earn more once they get married. Fry cited increased organization in their lives as a reason, which helps married men get to work on time and become more dependable, aspects employers value in their workers.

That being the case, the disadvantage may be in how the American workforce has been taking shape over the last 40 years, and the growing disparity in income in the country. That's a study for another day. In the meantime, the data is clear: if you're married, you're being taxed more, but it's because you're making more.

Published on: Sep 25, 2017
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