Research Digest

Excerpted from Capital Ideas 

Memo to Congress: Tax Couples as Individuals

frankelWhen people find partners with similar earnings ability, the best tax system is one in which a couple's incomes are taxed separately, according to Alexander P. Frankel, assistant professor of economics and Richard N. Rosett Faculty Fellow. His research, "Taxation of Couples under Assortative Mating," is scheduled for publication in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

Economists have long studied how the tax system could be used to fight inequality. To some, an optimal tax policy redistributes income from the rich to the poor by taxing high earners more. At the same time, it makes sure not to blunt incentives to work by imposing too high a tax rate.

When low-earning people tend to marry each other, a policy that links their incomes and tax rates becomes expensive because it results in a high level of government subsidies. When one low earner loses some income, the spouse faces a higher tax rate and a disincentive to work. That combination makes the partners poorer and may make them eligible for a higher level of government subsidies, creating an additional cost for taxpayers.

In Frankel's view, as couples with a main breadwinner become less common, and couples with two low- or middle-income earners become more common, it makes sense to tax married people separately. Maintaining tax rates and the incentive to work, rather than providing subsidies, would be a more cost-effective way of combating income inequality. As the economy becomes less reliant on the main-breadwinner family, it becomes more important for the government to provide the right incentives to low-income families. - Vanessa Sumo

Photo by Dan Dry

Last Updated 2/21/14