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

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 3:58 a.m. MDT

Four year old Clara Gerlach paints nails with her mom Kim. The Gerlach family has adopted three children. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Four year old Clara Gerlach paints nails with her mom Kim. The Gerlach family has adopted three children. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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.

The rise in single motherhood, particularly among women younger than 30, results in many challenges, not the least of which rest on the shoulders of courageous single women. Conversely, by forming families through marriage and having children in a stable family, parents invest in children in ways that will benefit the whole of society, including singles without children. By having children, parents add to the supply of labor and human capital, something singles don't have to shoulder but from which they benefit.

For instance, the very Social Security and health systems that the authors argue present unfair costs to singles are very dependent upon a growing labor supply to fund a pay-as-you-go and pooled risk systems. Children also represent the future tax base for funding local, state and federal government.

It is not a particularly challenging logical or mathematical leap to understand why government provides incentives for marriage and family formation. One only has to look to countries that are not replacing older generations like Japan to conclude that population slowing is very, very costly and disruptive. So, singles should be thankful to married couples willing to form and foster families and invest in children, who will eventually shoulder the burden of future taxes and social services.

Families with children also provide markets for consumer goods and major expenses that diversify the economy and jobs. Much has been made politically of "Soccer Moms." An estimated 5 million soccer balls sell in the United States each year at an average price of $15, generating around $75 million in sales revenue — with a healthy portion destined for child soccer leagues. Involved in that product alone is an extensive domestic and global value chain of goods that may involve employees in leather, rubber, paint, stitching, manufacturing, plastics, cardboard packaging, import/export, logistics and shipping, finance, accounting, marketing, advertising, construction and retail sectors. Now consider the myriad daily and weekly goods purchased by families for children, and the picture of the benefits to an economy from a growing population begin to emerge.

Third problem: Class conflict

While the flaws in Arnold and Campbell's analysis are perplexing, what is more disappointing is the tone they've introduced to a significant social challenge. They anchor their entire argument around a "zero sum game" mentality or an "us versus them" mentality, which naturally leads to classifications and conflict.

Women in our society and economy have made tremendous, courageous progress in the past century, including those single and married. It is true and should be acknowledged that singles in American society contribute to the economy, charities and communities in new and interesting ways. But it is also true that the deliberate choice to marry and parent children contributes to well-being worldwide. Thus, it is a mistake to pit single women against married women.

The authors also confuse the issue of discrimination. While I applaud their endeavors to shine a light on the needs of a meaningful segment of our society, to argue that society discriminates against singles is remarkable.

First, they are growing in number, voice and economic position in society on all levels. Second, as they argue on their blog onely.org repeatedly, being a committed, happy single is an individual lifestyle choice. Accordingly, the commitment of marriage and family is made by other individuals. That single individuals enjoy both economic mobility and can move from one status to another based on free will confounds their discrimination argument. To argue that child-friendly tax policies discriminate against singles is akin to the table-grape industry claiming they're penalized because a new movie studio gets a tax break.

What is clearly true, and is abundantly clear from the authors' other writings, is that being single in communities organized around families, family activities and marriage-dominated holidays and norms can generate feelings of discomfort and disenfranchisement among singles. Married couples, families and employers should strive to be more sensitive to the needs of singles and the remarkable, deliberate and vibrant contributions they make to society. Likewise, singles should acknowledge the substantial individual and social benefits they derive from those committed to forming families and investing in the next generation.

There is much to be learned from one another, but let us not devolve into class conflict.

Matthew studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service. msanders@deseretnews.com or @Sanders_Matt

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