The Marriage Advantage
According to 1999 figures from the Population Resource Center, families in which the mother is the head of the household are, by and large, living on less. Because of the wage gap, female-headed households earn, on average, $26,164 a year; male-headed households earn $41,138 per year; and married households earn $56,827 per year.
Then, there are the more than 1,100 federal benefits that married households can take advantage of during a lifetime. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, married partners can take leave from work when their spouse gets sick; unmarried partners cannot. Federal Medicaid laws permit only married couples to keep their homes when one partner needs nursing home care; an unmarried partner can lose the house. When a married person dies, the spouse inherits Social Security benefits; an unmarried partner gets nothing.
All told, according to the Los Angeles-based American Association for Single People and cited in an October 2003 Business Week article, with health benefits, retirement, and so on, married families can "earn" 25 percent more than unmarried ones.
How does this stack up with the so-called "marriage penalty" that people complain about at tax time? Two of the major tax penalties were eliminated in 2003, says Fred Grant, a senior tax analyst at Turbo Tax, a corporation that produces electronic tax preparation programs.
Used to be, married couples filing jointly had a lower standard deduction than two singles living together, and married couples (in the lowest two income brackets) got bumped into a higher tax bracket on a combined income, thus paying more taxes overall. Now, only the richest three tiers pay more as marrieds than as cohabiters.
There are a few other penalties married couples face (for example, they need a lower combined income to qualify for a $1,000 per-child tax credit), but, Grant warns, taxes are such a complex soup incorporating home ownership, itemizations, and more, it's almost impossible to state assertively which type of family comes out ahead tax-wise.
Money, Marriage -- and Children
What is safe to say is that the kids of untraditional families can wind up penalized. Of course, there are many possible scenarios. In the best cases, kids living with, for instance, only their mother also receive financial support from a father. But as many single moms will tell you, not all fathers pay their full share of childcare costs.
Statistics also show that there are many kids lacking basic health insurance -- at last count, about 8.4 million, according to the U.S. Census. All told, there are 11 million children (16 percent) living at or below the poverty line, and while that's not broken down into the number of kids with married or unmarried parents, it's a sure bet that many impoverished kids are in untraditional families.