Why Get Married?

About 3.5 million unmarried opposite-sex couples are living
together in the United States today, up from 2 million a decade
ago. If you think this is merely an explosion of passionate
anti-authoritarianism, guess again: Many of the couples who are
joining the boom may simply be making a sound fiscal decision.

Some observers link the widespread acceptance of cohabitation
with recognition that the economics of marriage are often
unfavorable. To begin with, there’s a 50 percent chance that a
marriage will fail, and divorce is expensive. Beyond that, tax laws
and other government policies — in a country that says it wants
strong families — may actually be discouraging marriage.

It’s well known that the poor are often victims of tax and
government-benefit marriage penalties. When marriage reduces
welfare eligibility, many decide against it. In addition, as Joseph
Spiers notes in Fortune (July 11, 1994), married low-wage
workers may be at an income-tax disadvantage. For example, the
standard deduction and Earned Income Tax Credit are often lower for
working couples than for two singles. Spiers concludes that ‘the
task of welfare reform might get easier if government first removes
this disincentive to build stable families.’

The problem persists higher up on the economic ladder, too. In
Forbes (May 22, 1995), Janet Novack describes tax penalties
that affect well-to-do couples, including income taxes higher than
singles pay and business expense ceilings that don’t double for
marrieds. ‘[Had] Congress set about to create a tax code to
encourage people to avoid marriage, it could scarcely have done a
better job,’ says Novack. She concludes: ‘We hate to say it, but if
you are a prosperous person contemplating marriage with a
well-heeled partner, maybe you should forget the ceremony and just
move in together.’

Middle-aged couples of more modest means face another hurdle if
either partner is divorced or widowed and has college-age children.
Colleges routinely include stepparents’ income in calculating
whether a student will receive financial aid and, if so, how much.
This forces potential stepparents to take on burdensome
responsibilities for children who are not their own, and it may
result in the denial of aid. Divorced parents have to decide
between remarriage and their children’s education.

In the American Association of Retired Persons magazine
Modern Maturity (May/June 1995), Linda Stern describes the
various marriage and remarriage penalties that threaten older
people: Social Security earnings limits, capital gains exclusions
on home sales, and Medicaid eligibility limits, for example. As a
result, unmarried couples quietly move in together and enjoy
companionship, while long-married couples sometimes divorce in
order to avoid financial disaster.

Are these penalties causing cohabitation? It’s impossible to say
for sure, but the fact that older couples are an important part of
the boom suggests a connection. ‘The Census Bureau estimates that
the percentage of cohabiting unmarried couples has doubled since
1980, and older couples are keeping pace,’ writes Stern. ‘In 1993
some 416,000 couples reported that they were unmarried, living
together, and over 45. That compares with 228,000 who fit the
description in 1980.’ And in the New York Times (July 6,
1995), Jennifer Steinhauer reports on the research of Professor
Larry Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin, who found that the
biggest increase in couples choosing to live together was not among
twentysomethings, but among people over 35. Bumpass found that 49
percent of his subjects between 35 and 39 are living with someone,
up from 34 percent in the late 1980s. Among people 50 to 54, the
practice has doubled. Using data from his survey, Bumpass showed
that only a small segment of people disapprove of cohabitation and
sex outside marriage. He concluded that ‘the trends we have been
observing are very likely to continue, with a declining emphasis on

Of course, marriage still has its advantages, beyond obvious
ones like greater emotional security and social and religious
approval. It can be a social welfare system, providing health
insurance and retirement security to a spouse who otherwise would
have none. For couples in which one person earns most of the family
income, tax laws are favorable to marriage.

But overall, official economic policy makes marriage a bad
option for too many people. Those who determine our income taxes,
government benefits, and institutional practices must remember that
marriage is an economic as well as a social arrangement. In a
society in which many marriages have failed, financial security is
tenuous, and living together is acceptable, we can no longer assume
that the institution of marriage will survive the burdens it has
carried in the past. Moving toward marriage-neutral tax and benefit
policies would, in the long run, lay a better foundation for true
family values.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.