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The tax code is designed to penalize working women

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How tax code hurts working women

Shortly after writing a check to the IRS, I got an $800 bill from my accountant for her work preparing my taxes, so I was in a cranky mood. But in addition to my traditional late spring tax-related grumpiness, I’m always a little disturbed that taxes—and the very specific ways in which the tax code is structured against working women—aren’t more of a political rallying point for women in general. Here’s what I mean.

The bias against secondary earners

In the introduction to his book Taxing Women, Edward McCaffery notes that the story of taxes and women is complicated in its details, but very simple in its major theme. He writes:

“Major elements in the tax code were put in place in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. This was a time when the traditional family—in which the man as father and husband worked outside the home, and the woman as mother and wife worked inside it—was dominant. Tax law changes were put in place to foster and reward this single earner household. These changes were left in place, all but unexamined, as the system kept growing. The tax system’s strong bias in favor of single-earner families now sits uneasily under modern conditions.”

Women as secondary earners

So there’s an automatic bias in the tax code against “secondary earners”—the salary earning person in a household whose decision to work is more flexible. Generally, that is the person who earns less.

Historically, that has been the wife. (Please note: All of the observations here about secondary earner bias apply whenever a married couple files jointly, no matter their genders and no matter who is the secondary earner. I simply follow McCaffery and the voice of history here, by referring to the “secondary earner” as “the wife” because for much of history, this has been the case.)

So here’s how the secondary earner bias works. Because married couples most often file jointly (filing separately results in the need to pay higher taxes) the primary earner in the household (and usually that’s the husband) gets taxed “first.” That is to say that his salary gets the benefit of the zero percent tax bracket, and each of the tax brackets above it, until his salary has, as it were, been put through the IRS wringer.

Then it is the secondary earner’s turn. She doesn’t start over again by running her salary through the zero percent bracket, then each successively higher bracket. Instead, her salary is stacked on top of the primary earner’s salary. Her first dollar is taxed at the same percentage rate as his last dollar.

The government’s assumptions about how women manage their money

It’s easy to see that a lot of assumptions go along with this method of taxation—assumptions about how households make decisions about spending the money each individual earns, how they manage household accounts, and so on.

A couple that pools all their financial assets, never disagrees about how money should be spent, and harbors no resentment about differing wages might never see the problem with this kind of taxation. I’ve never met that couple, but I suppose those people might exist. However, tax scholar Marjorie Kornhauser notes:

“Couples do not universally share or pool finances, let alone universally believe in such a system. In fact, a significant percentage (ranging from 30% to approximately 50%) do not share all their income.”

For those of us in that 30 to 50 percent, and even for those who just may have different preferences about financial choices, the problems are obvious. And as McCaffery points out:

“On average two-earner families, at middle and upper income levels, sacrifice about 68% of the wife’s lower salary to taxes and other expenses occasioned by her work. Because of this there is a strong pressure to look at the impact of the wife’s earnings on both the family’s bottom line and its general happiness. The wife’s working outside the home becomes marginal or discretionary.”

We’ve all heard it: “I’m not sure I can afford to keep working.”

That’s not a bug. It’s a design feature of our current tax code.

For example, when optional joint filing or “income splitting” became a part of the code in 1948, the tax law scholar Stanley Surrey praised it, saying:

“Wives need not continue to master the details of the retail drug business, electrical equipment business, or construction business, but may turn from their partnership “duties” to the pursuit of homemaking.”

Gee. Thanks.

The government’s war against low-income women

As always, the picture is bleaker than the lower one’s income level is. McCaffery argues persuasively that by intentionally rewarding single-earner families through the tax code, the state “is not sensitive to the economic realities of lower income life.” When you’re living on a very tight budget, the tax code can make getting and staying married a luxury some people can’t afford.

I think we should be working hard to change the tax code, and I think that the legalization of same-sex marriage may help draw some attention to the secondary earner problem. But right now, it is discriminatory, and most people don’t even realize it. As McCaffery notes:

“Women are being taxed, and taxed very heavily, but this tax has become so entrenched and hidden that its alleviation has come to be viewed as an unwarranted “bonus” to working women and as subversive of the status quo.”

How women can achieve equality

Virginia Woolf tells us, famously, that, if she is to write, a woman must have money and a room of her own. I would amend that to say that, if she is to do almost anything, and certainly if she is to be “at liberty” to flourish in good Aristotelian fashion, a woman must have money and a room of her own.

Today, there are still many things that keep women from having that money and that room.

We have, as women who love liberty, an opportunity to set the schedule for the debate, and I think we need to put these economic issues on our agenda. For these are issues that have been always and in all ways about the rights of the individual. And they are issues where the individuals who suffer the most have often been women.

That makes those issues our business, our mission.

It’s time to get off the bicycles that have been built for us by the state and by the protection-seeking groups that have worked with the state. It’s time to work with the women and the men we need and love and build our own damn bicycles that can take us where we want to go.

To read part one of this two part series on women and liberty, please follow the button below.

This article was originally published on the Learn Liberty blog.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.


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