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Women, work and fair taxes

By Jean Kazez

After reading an editorial by Linda Hirshman in the New York Times recently (Op-Ed April 25), I learned something amazing about myself. After twelve years of marriage and ten years of motherhood, in my heart of hearts I'm still single.

Hirshman is worried about new mothers who are tempted to opt out of work. One factor can be a high-earning husband -- sometimes there just isn't any financial need for a second income. Furthermore, if a woman's pay is low and her husband's high, a large percentage of her income can wind up going to the IRS, since a married couple is taxed at a rate based on combined income.

Hirshman's suggestion is that the tax code should be changed, so each person's income is taxed separately. That way a mother could continue at least part-time work and take home all or most of her pay. A woman earning just $10K might take home everything; a woman earning $20K or $30K (and more) would be taxed at the lowest rate.

When I was single, I had earnings in that ballpark, and I sure didn't have the problem of the high-earning husband or the too-high tax rate. I had problems like needing to pay my rent and utilities, and having to pay off student loans. Occasionally my finances got derailed by unexpected medical bills. When my income was at its lowest, in graduate school, I remember once spending my last five dollars -- and I mean my very last five dollars in the world -- on a can of roach spray.

Stepping back into the shoes of single me, it's hard for me to work up a whole lot of sympathy for the woman with the too rich husband. I figure she can afford her higher tax rate, because (duh!) her husband's high salary helps pay for the house, the clothes, the car, the medical bills, and the roach spray. We have a graduated income tax precisely because some can afford to contribute more than others.

As far as simple justice is concerned, it would be a travesty if low income single people were taxed at the same rate as part-timers with affluent husbands. But what about the argument that women need to be encouraged to stay in the work force?

This argument ought to rankle the women it's supposed to help. For one, Hishrman's argument assumes that it really is better to continue working than stay at home, so much better that the government should reinforce one choice and not the other. Make no mistake about it, a tax cut for two-income families would come at the expense of single-income families (and everybody else).

For another, if it is wise to stay in the work force, it's wise whether earnings are taxed at 15 percent or 35 percent or not at all. A job, even a very part-time job, does more than bring home a certain amount of bacon -- it keeps skills from rusting and preserves full-time employability for the day when it could become a necessity.

I'm happy to say that I've now traded in the problems of the low-earning single woman for the problems of the low-earning married woman with kids. I don't exactly have a rich husband, but I have a husband whose income kicks my tax rate upstairs. After ten years of making time for my children by working only part-time, I can say my tax burden has never bothered me. It also hasn't discouraged me from working. I have grown in my career over that time and preserved my ability to work full-time, should that be necessary or desirable in the future.

The one person I haven't been is a mother who doesn't work because it doesn't seem worth it, given the tax code. Who is this person? Presumably a woman with a pretty high household income. If she really doesn't want to work under the current tax code, she must have her reasons; her kids are young enough to need her round-the-clock care or they're older and there's something she'd rather be doing at home. It's hard to imagine that a tax cut would change many minds.

Meanwhile, a tax cut would be a violation of the most basic principle of justice: treat like cases alike. Past me had paychecks like present me, but our circumstances are completely different. It would be appalling if we were taxed just the same.

mmo : may 2007

Jean Kazez is the author of "The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life" (Blackwell 2007). Her article "The Good Life and the Mommy Wars" appears in the June 2007 issue of The Philosopher's Magazine. She teaches philosophy part-time at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband and two children.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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