U.S. Tax Code Disadvantages Single Women, Married Black Couples and Gay Couples the Most. Here’s How

The U.S. tax code is an outdated system that does not reflect the needs of modern society and the country’s demographics. Among those it costs the most: single women, married Black couples and gay couples.

In the U.S., it is much more expensive to be single than it is to be married. And according to former Department of the Treasury tax attorney Lily Khang, a single person never pays less in taxes than a couple filing jointly. (Catherine Falls / Getty Images)

Tax Day is fast-approaching, which spells a lost weekend (and, probably, lots of wine and swearing) for those of us who brave filing our own returns. This dreaded annual event is made even worse if you happen to be single.

The majority of women in the United States are unmarried, which makes sense given the primary reason people started getting hitched in the first place—“to bind women to men, and thus guarantee that a man’s children were truly his biological heirs”—is super cringe in 2023. In our modern world, research finds women who are single and without children are America’s happiest and healthiest group. But thanks to our antiquated and heteronormative tax code, they’re also financially penalized.

There’s not a lot that elicits yawns more than talking about the tax code, but we’d like to position a reframing: We’re really just talking about money and building a society of mutual aid, which is infinitely more compelling. How much money we put into a communal pot, where that money goes, who’s trying to skimp out on paying their fair share—these are the juicy questions we should all be paying close attention to. These are the questions that drive our economy. How our tax code is set up to privilege white married people is another key question. 

There’s an interesting, classic Americana story about how the joint return started in the first place. A rich white guy in Seattle in the 1920s wanted to pay less in taxes, so he decided to transfer half his earnings to his non-income earning wife. The IRS was not into it, and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which sided with the wealthy couple.

Since then, the tax code has been designed to favor married couples. As former Department of the Treasury tax attorney Lily Khang concluded in a paper on the lack of fairness within our tax system, “A single person never pays less relative to a couple, whether married or unmarried, with the same amount of income as the single person.”

Yes, you read that right—a single person never pays less in taxes than a couple filing jointly.  

And, in a completely unsurprising yet infuriating truth, Black Americans are especially harmed by the tax code. As scholar Dorothy K. Brown has researched, the tax system was designed to benefit those it was written by: white people.

We see this in deductions for things like contributing to employer-sponsored retirement accounts (Black folks are less likely to have jobs that offer access to these) and mortgage interest (it’s far harder for Black people to get a mortgage).

And being married doesn’t generally offer the same financial benefits to Black couples as it does to white, since Black couples are more likely to have two wage earners instead of tax cut-earning single income couples.

The debt burden is also higher for Black married couples because Black people are saddled with higher student and medical debt, but the tax code only allows up to $2,500 deduction on student debt regardless of how much you owe, and research shows that often tax refunds are used to pay off medical debt.

With higher student and medical debt burdens, Black people lose again. 

Ultimately, the current U.S. tax code is an outdated system that does not benefit or reflect the needs of our modern society’s social structures or increasingly diverse demographics.

Among those it costs:

  • Single women, who face a double whammy of filing as an individual, on top of earning less than men to begin with.
  • Single Black women, who face all that, on top of a racial income and wealth gap.
  • Married Black couples, who are less likely to have access to the life circumstances that earn the biggest deductions.
  • Gay couples, who have more barriers to marriage and are therefore less likely to be married than their straight counterparts. 

It’s time for our tax code to reflect our reality.

As Brown suggested, the best way to make the system more equitable is to keep it simple: Tax single-income and dual-income married filers equally, and tax inheritance and investments—more likely to be held by the wealthy—at the same rate as income.

Khang’s solution is similarly succinct: Tax single and married filers the same. Doing so, she concluded, would allow us to “further question the role of the government in promoting marriage as a solution to poverty, especially for [Black] women. Instead, marriage could come to be viewed as one among many alternatives.”

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About and

Saadia Van Winkle (McConville) is a writer and former television journalist. She currently runs communications for several economic justice and policy organizations.
Jhumpa Bhattacharya is co-president and co-founder of The Maven Collaborative in Oakland.