“For most women in straight couples, this invisibility isn’t new or surprising. As humans, as citizens, as tax payers, and as bread winners, we’re used to being regarded as someone else’s appendage.”
This article was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle. It is reprinted here with permission.
Economic Impact Payments (EIP) to American families started rolling out by mail and direct deposit at the end of December, but many eligible citizens are still on deck to receive payments. But there’s a big surprise in store for eligible tax-paying women who file jointly with a male spouse: Your check will likely be addressed to your husband, and your husband only, not you.
When my family’s check arrived in the mail, it was in the kind of generic-looking envelope that usually encloses credit card offers with fake “John Doe” cards gummed to the invitation letter. We didn’t know what to expect this time around since our first payment last year arrived as a paper check and other people got direct deposits; the distribution method hasn’t been consistent for folks receiving these relief funds.
I wouldn’t have known a thing about this payment if I hadn’t been standing next to my husband as he was leafing through his mail and grumbled something like “looks like trash” as he flung the discarded contents onto the kitchen counter. Well, if it hadn’t been for little miss wifey, who decided to snoop and take a closer look, our full family EIP payment would’ve been headed for the recycling bin.
Once I realized what I had in my hands, I started scouring the envelope and card for details. Was this just my husband’s payment, I wondered? Only his name was on the envelope and enclosed letter, yet, there was my name below his, printed on the debit card. I followed the instructions to activate the card using my Social Security Number only to find that my information was not valid. Only my husband’s number could unlock those federal relief dollars.
For most women in straight couples, this invisibility isn’t new or surprising. As humans, as citizens, as tax payers, and as bread winners, we’re used to being regarded as someone else’s appendage. And you don’t need to go to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid Tale franchise for evidence of that fact; the former president told Michigan voters at an October 2020 rally, “We’re getting your husbands back to work”—even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics had reported that four times more women than men were pushed out of the labor force the month before.
Similarly, every time I’ve tried to file our taxes with my name as the head of household, regardless of who made more money that year, the names come back flipped either by the tax person helping us or by the online filing system I use. And since the EIP funding relies on taxpayer information, they use that same information on their mailings.
It’s not surprising that the stimulus payment system would rely on antiquated Head of Household data for its rushed and faulty distribution, but to actually render one of two joint-filing spouses non-existent on an address label, and then dependent on knowing their partner’s social security information to access funds is an example of classically regressive and harmful gender politics.
For women in abusive relationships, in the midst of a separation, or in marriages where money just isn’t openly and honestly shared, this simple address label choice could have real material consequences. Studies show that in both the U.S. and worldwide, working women spend a much higher percentage of their personal income on household and children’s needs than men do. On average, women use more than double the percentage of their paychecks to foot the bills for family food, clothing, and medical expenses, compared to men.
With the EIP paying up to $600 to any person that has a valid work-eligible Social Security number, is not considered a dependent of someone else, and whose adjusted gross income does not exceed thresholds, and another $600 for each child under 17, the funds going to an average American family of four total more than $2,000. If a woman can’t access that payment for herself and her children, the government cannot pride itself on helping American families. They’re only helping men.
During a year when women are losing their jobs as they do the unpaid and vastly undervalued work of a welfare state, caring for and educating their children at home while school facilities sit empty and shuttered, and managing elder-care for the most vulnerable populations, robbing women of the federal government’s pittance of economic support is both an absurd travesty and a drop in the bucket.
Last year a MarketWatch column identified one wife’s struggle with what’s legally considered financial abuse when her husband refused to share the family’s stimulus check made out in his name alone. The Moneyist suggested that the wife seek legal counsel, but never mentioned that the problem could be easily solved by a change in how the government issues and addresses its payments.
President Biden and Vice President Harris have a chance to do better. If they are serious about their commitments to unity and equality, any future economic relief bills must include funding that can be accessed by married women just as easily as their male spouses. That’s an issue that cuts across households in both red states and blue. It makes you wonder: if they were in my tax bracket, would Kamala need to ask Doug to open his mail and then shout out the last six digits of his SSN so she could dial it into the EIP activation line?
Last year was the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Half a century later, in 1974, the Senate passed the Equal Credit Opportunity act giving women the right to credit cards in their own names. This year, in 2021 will women get equal access to economic relief payments during a global pandemic? That’s a question that only time and Margaret Atwood can answer—unless Joe and Dr. Jill, Kamala and Doug get there first.
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