Matthew Sanders: Focusing on single vs. married is the wrong battle

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16 2013 12:30 a.m. MST

Four year old Clara Gerlach paints nails with her mom Kim. The Gerlach family has adopted three children.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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The Atlantic recently featured the article, "The high price of being single in America," by single adult advocates Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell. The authors present their analysis with a conclusion that over their lifetimes, singles incur $1 million more in income tax, Social Security, IRAs, housing and health care costs than married individuals. They admirably and transparently walk the reader through a dizzying array of spreadsheet mechanics to illustrate how they arrived at their conclusion. They conclude with a dramatic claim that such egregious costs indicate societal and governmental discrimination against singles.

But they are wrong.

Arnold and Campbell frame the debate improperly, and their analysis misses the mark badly in three fundamental ways. First, they've excluded very important categories in their analysis. Second, they ignore the benefits of family formation and child rearing on the single population. Third, they foment a damaging class conflict where there should be none.

First problem: Missing data

I agree with the authors premise that the growing number of single adults in American society is certainly an important part of our national policy and culture dialogue. But they abruptly begin their article by using the work of a single social scientist to dismiss all professsional research that persistently indicates well-being benefits of marriage and family as "poorly defined." Yet at the end of their own hypothetical analysis, they concede that their numbers could be manipulated in many different ways, but they ask us to trust them that the dismal outcomes for singles persists.

In their estimates, the authors included specific categories of cost/benefit affected by federal policy that they can interpret as subsidies or costs. But before addressing the factors they include, it is important to highlight what is shockingly absent in their eight page report: children.

Where are the costs and benefits of family formation and child rearing in their analysis? To hold single and married individuals independent of children fundamentally ignores the fact that social policies have favored family formation because they typically lead to offspring and labor and human capital supply growth. While making their analysis much more convenient, omitting children from the married side of the equation renders their calculations grossly incomplete. Statisticians cringe at such an error, which they call "omitted variable bias."

Without children in the analysis, they miss entire cost categories in which families naturally pay higher lifetime costs. For instance, here is a brief sampling of what child-rearing families must pay for that singles do not: larger cars, diapers and pull ups, larger homes, school clothes, braces, broken bones and tuition. Oh, and it seems the requirements for car seats keep advancing in age and weight!

Furthermore, the article completely ignores the time value of money or the analysis where an accomodation is made for present versus future value of a dollar — in other words, "What is a dollar worth to me now versus when I retire?" In such an analysis, young families early in careers must spread nascent incomes across more people, and accordingly have more to do with the same income. Thus, retirement and educational savings benefits proffered to families have to be heavily discounted. In that same sense, Social Security payroll taxes disproportionately hurt parents of young families for whom money is more dear. Income tax relief policies for those engaged in child rearing accomodate for such an environment, but the payroll taxes of Social Security do not.

Second problem: Ignore benefits to singles by family formation

Another key factor in Arnold and Campbell's analysis is the lifetime benefit of fostering family and children. While not all marriages succeed and not all marriages produce children, research has shown that stable marriage is important for spousal and child well-being.

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