Thesis: For all that it has become the subject of intense controversy, the reality about same-sex marriage is that it will exert only a very small and positive impact on society in general, while greatly benefiting same-sex couples.
- The financial impact of gay marriage due to taxes (pp. 4-5).
- Overall, the impact will be very small but positive in terms of governmental revenue (Barro, 2013).
- The “marriage penalty”: a couple may be taxed at a higher rate than they would be individually (Barro, 2013).
- Conversely, there is a marriage bonus, but it is a smaller effect (Barro, 2013).
- In the event of one partner’s death, marriage equality will benefit the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage in many cases, by enabling them to avoid estate taxes (Davis, 2013).
- In the event of one partner’s death, the surviving partner does not have to pay estate taxes if the total amount is below a certain threshold (Davis, 2013).
- The landmark case here is United States v. Windsor: Edith Windsor filed suit to contest a hefty estate tax bill, assessed due to the fact that DOMA meant her marriage to her late wife was not recognized.
- Other financial benefits of marriage equality for same-sex couples (pp. 5-7).
- Property rights: a two-edged sword (FindLaw, n.d.).
- Positive: joint ownership of property during a marriage; may also protect an economically vulnerable partner in the event of divorce (FindLaw, n.d.).
- Negative: division of property can be acrimonious in the event of divorce; division of debts for which both partners are jointly liable even more so (FindLaw, n.d.).
- Reduced expenditures for entitlement programs but more positive outcomes for same-sex couples (Barro, 2013).
- Increased spending on benefits will yield more costs (Barro, 2013).
- However, these will be offset by decreased need for social welfare programs (Barro, 2013).
III. Non-financial benefits of marriage equality: children and parental rights (p. 7).
- A married couple has equal rights and responsibilities (FindLaw, n.d.).
- In the event of divorce, both partners have rights.
- If one partner dies, the survivor is clearly the parent.
- Popular and legal recognition of the injustice of depriving same-sex couples of equal rights (pp. 7-8).
- Court rulings have struck down discriminatory laws as unjust and even irrational.
- New Mexico cases: denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples violates the New Mexico Constitution’s ban on gender discrimination (Pollon, 2013).
- Proposition 8 struck down as irrational and discriminatory (Davis, 2013).
- Sea change in popular opinions favoring gay marriage (PRC, 2013).
- Strong growth in support for marriage equality among Millennial generation (PRC).
- Also growth in support for marriage equality among the Silent generation (PRC).
Fundamentally, the best argument for gay marriage rests on principle: the idea that same-sex couples ought to have the same rights as opposite-sex couples. However, inasmuch as marriage rights confer privileges and obligations in society, it is worthwhile to seek to ascertain what, if any fiscal impact the legalization of same-sex marriage might be expected to have. This is an important area to investigate, if for no other reason than to find any likely legal or fiscal issues. The answer, from the Congressional Budget Office no less, turns out to be a very small but nonetheless positive impact, if ‘positive’ is measured in terms of fiscal impact on the broader society (Barro, 2013).
The first reason for this is because of taxes. Married couples file tax returns jointly. Because of this, there is an interesting phenomenon known as the “marriage penalty”, whereby married couples with both partners working end up paying more in taxes than they would if they remained unmarried (Barro, 2013). This effect is observable in spouses with similar incomes: since the incomes are pooled, they can often push the couple into a higher tax bracket, whereas if they had remained unmarried they could simply pay taxes on their respective incomes. There is also a “marriage bonus” effect for some couples with highly disparate incomes, but the “marriage penalty” effect seems to be much more important (Barro, 2013).
Of course, this outcome is scarcely desirable for same-sex couples themselves, no more than it is for opposite-sex couples (Barro, 2013). However, a discussion of the advisability or fairness of such taxation policies is well beyond the purview of this analysis. What remains clear is that the impact for governmental revenue, as determined by the CBO, is a positive one: if the George W. Bush tax cuts are extended, legalized gay marriage in all 50 states “would increase tax receipts by about $400 million a year” (Barro). If the George W. Bush tax cuts were to be repealed, that figure would jump to about $700 million a year (Barro).
All of the above notwithstanding, gay marriage in all 50 states holds the possibility of considerable fiscal benefits for same-sex couples. A case in point is another dimension of tax policy: estate taxes. When one partner in a married couple dies, the surviving spouse can collect their estate without paying an estate tax if the total amount is below a certain threshold (Davis, 2013). The landmark case United States v. Windsor highlighted the issues in question, and the Supreme Court’s ruling struck down DOMA, the federal Defense Of Marriage Act. In United States v. Windsor, Edith Windsor filed suit after inheriting the estate of her deceased wife Thea Spyer and owing $363,053 in federal estate tax (Davis).
The couple had gotten married in Ontario, Canada, due to the fact that they could not do so in New York, where they lived (Davis, 2013). Thea died in 2009, and thanks to DOMA, Edith was hit with a large estate tax bill. She filed suit, arguing that DOMA violated her Fifth Amendment rights to equal protection. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in her favor; the decision was appealed to both the Second Circuit and the Supreme Court, but was reaffirmed both times. In a landmark victory for the LGBT community, DOMA was struck down (Davis).
Overall, property rights for same-sex couples will probably turn out to be just as much of a two-edged sword as they are right now for straight couples. As FindLaw (n.d.) explains, if a couple is married, the standing assumption is that all property accumulated during the marriage—including a house, cars, etc.—is jointly owned. For happily married couples this is a rather beneficial right, and it may serve to help protect an economically vulnerable partner in the event of divorce. However, it does nonetheless constitute a two-edged sword, as anyone who has ever witnessed or experienced a divorce can probably attest: in the event of divorce, joint property rights can produce contention over not only the division of property, but also of debts. After all, under the law, both partners retain liability for any debt they entered into as a couple (FindLaw). All in all, then, this is an area of significant rights and responsibilities, one that does pose some significant challenges.
There are other, quite significant financial benefits that same-sex couples will be able to enjoy as a result of same-sex marriage. Curiously, the Congressional Budget Office found that overall, same-sex marriage would reduce expenses for entitlement programs, and create more positive outcomes for same-sex couples (Barro, 2013). The reason why has to do with efficiency. On the one hand, same-sex marriage will produce increased expenditures in the area of Social Security benefits, because same-sex partners will have access based on spousal income. This might be thought of as the converse to heavier taxation, the “marriage penalty.” The estimate was an added expense of $350 million a year. To this must be added the $80 million a year that it would cost to cover qualified same-sex couples under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (Barro).
The fascinating part is where the savings would come from. Because marriage involves pooling two incomes (assuming both partners work), it tends to have the effect of buffering people from financial hardship to a certain extent (Barro, 2013). Because of this, fewer same-sex individuals will need such entitlement programs as Supplemental Security Income (estimated savings: $100 million per year), Medicaid ($300 million saved per year), and Medicare ($50 million saved per year). Overall, the ledger stands at cost increases of $430 million for entitlements, set against cost reductions of $450 million (Barro). This would appear to be a win-win for both the LGBT community in particular, and the country in general. Indeed, according to FindLaw (n.d.), government benefits are one of the biggest reasons for an already committed couple to get married. In addition to Social Security benefits, there are “health care benefits, nursing home care, and unpaid leave… to care for family members” (FindLaw). Thanks to the overturning of DOMA by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, all of these should be available to same-sex couples at the federal level, though at the state level they may be dependent upon state law (FindLaw).
There are other legal benefits that same-sex couples will realize from marriage. Children are a rather obvious case, since whether a couple is married or not has a great deal of impact on the rights and responsibilities of both partners with respect to any children. If a couple is married, the status of both partners is the same with respect to both rights and responsibilities (FindLaw, n.d.). If the couple later divorces, then both partners retain a claim on custody and visitation rights. If one partner dies, then the survivor is legally recognized as the primary parent. As things stand now, same-sex couples can sometimes adopt children, and thereby “gain the rights of legal parents” (FindLaw).
In many ways, what the ruling on DOMA exposed is a growing recognition of the injustice inherent in denying same-sex couples the same rights to marry the person of their choice that straight couples enjoy. Recently, a ruling in a New Mexico case provided for marriage equality for same-sex couples in Santa Fe County, setting the stage for the likely legalization of same-sex marriage statewide (Pollon, 2013). The rationale given was that denying same-sex couples marriage rights is a violation of the New Mexico Constitution’s prohibition of gender-based discrimination. The case was won handily, thanks to a similar ruling the week before, which resulted in New Mexico’s Bernalillo County gaining marriage equality on the same grounds (Pollon).
Also similar to DOMA, California’s Proposition 8 was struck down for discriminating against same-sex couples: the Proposition amended the California Constitution to define marriage as limited to opposite-sex couples (Davis, 2013). It was struck down, with Federal Court Judge Vaughn Walker concluding that it “fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license” (Davis).
This logic—the idea that it is irrational to discriminate against same-sex couples—is reflected in the groundswell of popular support for same-sex marriage rights. A monumental sea change in public opinions has transpired: in 2003, 58% of Americans were opposed to same-sex marriage, and only 33% were in favor; in 2013, the Pew Research Center (PRC) found that “these figures have crossed, with 49% supporting same-sex marriage, and 44% opposed” (PRC, 2013). The growth in support for same-sex marriage is perhaps most dramatic in the Millennials, those born since 1980: in 2003, 51% of Millennials were in favor; today, 70% are. However, support has also grown in the so-called Silent generation, those born from 1928-1945: from just 17% in 2003 to a full 31% in 2013 (PRC). And tellingly, one out of seven Americans have changed their minds to favor same-sex marriage, while those who are opposed are clear that they have always been opposed—in other words, support for gay marriage is growing at the expense of opposition. Reasons given for a change of mind and heart include knowing someone who is gay or lesbian, and thoughtful reflection on the issue (PRC).
Gay marriage has been a lightning rod of controversy between activists and supporters of LGBT rights, and those opposed to the same on mostly religious grounds. While the case for marriage equality is ultimately a matter of principle, the idea that it is wrong to discriminate against same-sex couples, the fact that the practical consequences of same-sex marriage will be small yet positive is a welcome finding. Same-sex marriage offers same-sex couples many benefits currently enjoyed by straight couples. Fittingly, more and more of society is coming to recognize the importance of these equal rights.
Barro, J. (2013, March 26). What Is the Fiscal Impact of Gay Marriage? Bloomberg. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-03-26/what-is-the-fiscal-impact-of-gay-marriage-.html
Davis, J. (2013, July 29). Day of Equality. QVegas. Retrieved from http://qvegas.com/august-2013-the-relationship-issue/qmmunity-ties/day-of-equality
FindLaw. (n.d.). Same-Sex Marriage Legal Pros and Cons. FindLaw. Retrieved from http://family.findlaw.com/marriage/same-sex-marriage-pros-and-cons.html
Pew Research Center. (2013, March 20). Growing Support for Gay Marriage: Changed Minds and Changing Demographics. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2013/03/20/growing-support-for-gay-marriage-changed-minds-and-changing-demographics/
Pollon, Z. (2013, August 26). New Mexico’s largest county to allow gay marriage after court ruling. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/27/us-usa-marriage-newmexico-idUSBRE97Q03E20130827