Structural discrimination against single people is the latest topic chosen by our Patreon donors. It is sooooo like them to throw research-heavy bummers my way. Thanks a lot, you beneficent bastards!
I used to think that the biggest financial turning point in my life was when I stopped being self-employed (read “chronically underemployed”) and got a Big Girl Job™ with a steady paycheck and health benefits. It was transformational. I felt suddenly, magically middle class. Like the fairy godmother turned down the heat on her princess-making magic wand to something just as good, but slightly less flashy.
But now, I question if that was really my greatest turning point. Because around the same time, I started dating a friend of mine. Financial pressures pushed us to commit to moving in together almost immediately. In the jumble of first/last/security payments on a new apartment and a flurry of Craigslist secondhand furniture purchases, it took a while to feel any financial benefits to partnership.
I see more clearly now how much dual incomes and shared expenses contributed to our long-term stability, to a magnitude no job could ever touch.
At the structural level, our economy financially punishes single people. I think it often rises to the level of discrimination. But even when it doesn’t, single people statistically have less financial security, and thus will feel “normal” economic strains faster than partnered people.
I’m striving with all my being to discuss this topic without making an “all the single ladies” joke. 2008 was four hundred years ago, and I’m clinging to cultural relevancy with only my fingertips.
1. We financially punish single people by paying them less
When researchers charted the income of married and unmarried working people, they found a huge outlier in married men.
Clearly, marital status has a substantial impact on earning potential. Married people out-earned their single counterparts across every demographic. They get more job interviews and higher initial offers as well. The comedically large gap between white married men and everyone else is particularly striking. They earn 33% more than their unmarried peers. But I was surprised to see that married black men earned the #2 spot, as their wages have been on-par with white women in this century.
Granted, these numbers likely don’t imply causation. Like, some manager isn’t about to hire someone for $16/hour, then ups it to $20/hour just because they spotted a wedding band. Marriage correlates to other important factors like educational attainment.
But cultural factors must play a role, too. We have a ton of cultural baggage around married couples and the stereotype of men as providers. In living memory, we had whole sitcoms built on the premise that men needed wives to get promotions. Married men work more hours than single men—yet another instance of workplaces benefiting from the anxieties created by outdated gendered cultural norms, I suspect. Anecdotally, I have a friend who was told she was passed up for a promotion in favor of a married man because “he has a family to support.” And yes, this was a young woman, not Nana reminiscing about the Mad Men days!
2. We financially punish single people by taxing them more than married people
Fun fact: joint tax filings are a recent invention. Until 1948, everyone used to pay individual income tax, regardless of their relationship status. But the IRS was worried high-earning men would cheat taxes by diverting some of their income to their wives, lowering their overall tax brackets. So they created the joint marriage option.
This gave married couples a fantastic break, but did nothing whatsoever for single people. At the time, 78% of American adults were married. Being single was broadly considered a temporary life stage. So nobody really complained.
The so-called marriage tax bonus has evolved a lot since then. Some married couples may actually end up paying more, a marriage tax penalty—but that’s rarer. Overall, the tax code is still designed to offer better tax breaks to married people.
Take the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example. To get this tax credit, a single person’s adjusted gross income cannot exceed $15,820. If the system were unbiased toward single people, the ceiling for a couple would logically be double that at $31,640. But it’s not. It’s $21,710. That’s an improvement of almost ten grand!
A massive discount—just for being married.
3. We financially punish single people by making it harder to save for retirement and transfer inherited wealth
Institutionalized discrimination against single people continues into retirement and end-of-life planning.
Spousal IRAs make it possible for couples to support each other’s retirement goals. Single people cannot do the same. No matter how close or interdependent they are with an unrelated adult, they cannot help each other save for retirement in a tax-advantaged way unless they’re married.
Spouses are also the only ones able to withdraw money from an IRA to pay qualified medical or education expenses without the usual early deduction penalty.
While it’s never ideal to withdraw money from an IRA early, single people overburdened by unplanned medical expenses will lose 10 percent of the withdrawal amount even if the expenses are high. In other words, single people are penalized when they make the same choices as their married counterparts.The High Price of Being Single in America, The Atlantic
4. We financially punish single people by giving them fewer options to collect and bequeath Social Security benefits
Picture me as an old-school 1950s housewife. Like, vacuuming in a Peter Pan collar with a full face of makeup.
Because I was too busy making an endless stream of pineapple upside-down cakes, I never held a job that paid Social Security taxes. Yet I’d still be eligible to collect a solid chunk of money in retirement. How?
Why, through my husband! He’s spent years selling cigarettes to traveling vacuum cleaners or whatever! I can collect half of his Social Security benefits as a spousal benefit. Even if we get divorced, I could still collect if our marriage lasted at least ten years! Alternatively, if he died first, I could inherit his account as a survivor’s benefit.
Here’s the thing: a spouse is the ONLY person who is eligible to collect that benefit in full. Children and parents can also claim survivor’s benefits—but never the full 100%. Depending on circumstances, they would only get between 75 and 82%.
Single people cannot designate anyone else as a beneficiary of their social security benefit. These potentially life-changing inheritances are reserved for marrieds only. Because of reasons.
5. We financially punish single people by refusing to recognize the validity of important non-spousal relationships
In addition to these, there are myriad other programs, benefits, and protections that are discriminatorily only offered to married people. There are too many to name, but I’ll give you one example.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), qualified employees may take time off from their jobs to care for a child, parent, or spouse. But a spouse is the only non-family relationship deemed legitimate by this (necessary and important) legislation. Unmarried people cannot take time off to care for a non-relative, no matter how close or interdependent they are with that person.
And if you’re the one in need of care, but you’re single, you’d better hope your parents are alive and willing. Or that you have a really generous adult child kicking around out there. Otherwise, just lay down on the floor and wait for death!
6. We financially punish single people by making them pay more for healthcare
If you’re playing Bitches Get Riches bingo, you may now mark off the “rail ineffectually against the American healthcare system” square.
There are two primary reasons that single people spend more money than married people on healthcare. First, married couples double their choices for coverage because they can choose the best option between two employer-sponsored healthcare plans. So they’re less likely to overpay—either in premiums or deductibles—because they have more opportunities to choose the plan that best suits them.
Secondly, women pay substantially more for healthcare than men. Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that single women spend 8% of their income on healthcare, and heterosexual married couples spend 7%. Compare that with single men, who spend only 4%.
Sorry, husbandos, for dragging you down. We’ll see ourselves out.
7. We financially punish single people by acting too slowly on financial reforms that would benefit everyone
Guys, we have SO many great ideas for economic reforms.
What if we raised the minimum wage? Ooooh, or skip that and go straight to universal basic income?!
Mandatory pay transparency would be rad… but I’d settle for aggressive taxation of billionaires. Or even just capping the total number of investment properties one person can own.
Is universal healthcare on the table? Or a comprehensive plan to fight climate change? If that’s too much, could we just calm inflation down a little? Or ban single-use plastics?
It’s beyond frustrating to see so many interesting, ambitious ideas wasted. It feels like the more popular an idea is, the more likely it is to die a quiet death after six years “in committee.” I would broadly characterize Americans as acclimated to gridlock, and apathetic not by nature, but by justifiable cynicism.
When we fail to act on good ideas, people suffer. The first to suffer are those with the smallest margin between stability and poverty. And 95.3% of the people living below the federal poverty line are single.
I know people who’ve called in sick because they couldn’t afford to put gas in their car to drive to work. I know people who’ve stayed in abusive relationships because rent in even the most modest apartment is unaffordable on their salary alone.
These problems aren’t unique to single people, of course. But when the cost of living goes up, single people do not have the flexibility of two incomes with which to adjust. They just fall further behind.
Why discrimination against single people is illegal, unethical, and just generally whack
It’s discrimination based on marital status
In about half of all states, marital or familial status discrimination is illegal. Y’all can probably guess which half, lmao. Depending on the state, that may include situations involving employment, housing, insurance, or all of the above.
Ideally, these laws protect married couples, unmarried couples, single people, and total family configuration. For example, a boss can’t legally refuse to hire a young married woman because he’s worried she’ll go on maternity leave in the near future. (Although they still do.) And a landlord can’t refuse to rent to a young single man, or a family with children, because they have preconceived notions about what they’ll be like as tenants. But every state is different, and has interpreted these laws differently, so YMMV.
It’s discrimination based on sexual orientation
Thanks to decades of tireless activism, federal law has stronger protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And sexual orientation encompasses so much more than just being gay or lesbian. That’s the vanilla and chocolate of the queer world. Fine flavors, to be sure—but there are so many more!
Asexual people exist. Aromantic people exist. Polyamorous people exist. JFC, not everybody is heterosexual and monogamously partnered, Janet.
We have codified being single as a punishment for disabled people
Many, many disabled people have no choice but to stay single, despite being happily committed to a partner. It’s because we baked shame, skepticism, ableism, and eugenics into the fabric of our laws. It’s disgusting and shameful.
There is no marriage equality until disabled people can marry without losing their government assistance. And that will never happen so long as we make singledom into a kind of punishment.
Partnership is no longer the default
Today, far fewer people are choosing to marry. Half of all American adults are single. Even people who want to get married are spending much more time unmarried. The median age of first marriages is creeping dangerously close to 30 years old, the traditional cutoff point for official spinsterhood.
Millennials—ever the murderers—have killed both marriage AND divorce. (Has anyone started a satirical Murderpedia entry for Millennials yet? ‘Cuz we deserve one. We are prolific.) America isn’t alone. Most post-industrial countries are following the same trend. It makes no sense for this one relationship model to be so formally entrenched.
Temporary life statuses still deserve dignity and protection
I have no time for people who think the minimum wage shouldn’t be a living wage because “those are supposed to be temporary jobs!” Cool take, bro. Until I get a “better” job, I’ll just stop needing things like food and shelter!
I think the same is true here. Yeah, not every single person will stay single. But everyone deserves social respect and fair protections under the law, all of the time.
Childrearing deserves financial incentives unconnected to relationship statuses
Although I am committed to being childfree, I am an enthusiastic supporter of parents. The continuation of the species is difficult work, and I sure as shit don’t wanna do it. As a taxpayer, I’m happy to subsidize it. Incentives like the Child Tax Credit were a great idea. BRING BACK THE CHILD TAX CREDIT, YOU NUMBNUTS!
If the number of bastard royal children I had to learn about in AP Euro is any indication, the connection between marriage and childrearing was never perfect. Today, 40% of children are born to unmarried people. The archaic, patriarchal, and religiously rooted idea that kids equal marriage stinks like old milk.
Capitalism is eating feminism’s lunch, and I’m over it
You know what grinds my gears? Seeing the hard-won gains made by feminists coopted by capitalism.
Second-wave feminists fought for the right to work outside the home as a means to irrevocable personal autonomy. They wanted to get their own credit cards and work their own jobs and divorce their shitty spouses because it gave them the means to live independently.
They did not do that work so that women could become co-breadwinners in tandem with a partner, trapped together forever in a world that’s become so expensive that neither can meaningfully pursue happiness alone. It emphatically was not the point.
We’re writing more on this topic soon—and we want to hear from YOU
With all this negative information, what’s the silver lining? How do single people survive and thrive in a world that isn’t designed for them?
We’re working on another article in the near future that will address exactly that. See, this research has soured us on the idea that spouses are the only potential sources of financial synergy in your life. And we see reason to hope.
The basic necessities of life are more expensive now than at any point in recent history. Despite that, half of all Americans are unpartnered. That means people are out there, making it work. And we want to share their stories.
We want to hear from you. Who have you shared financial resources with other than a romantic partner? And how did that sharing go? Do you share childcare with a neighbor? Throw gas money at a coworker for rides? Trade chores with your roommate? Pay rent to your parents? Did you buy a house with your best friend? Please tell us about it in the comments below! The more unconventional, the better!
And thanks again to our Patreon donors for choosing this topic. None of them are single, though… because I love them so much, I’m dating them all. If you want to help us choose future topics and pay us a fair wage for all this research and writing, head on over to our Patreon.