Guess who pays most?

April 15, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON — BOSTON -- You have to give Ed McCaffery credit for bravery. The economist and law professor has walked onto the minefield of the lingering mommy wars armed with nothing but the tax laws and good intentions.

For over a generation now, mothers at the office and mothers at home have been hunkered down -- not always comfortable with their own decisions about work and family but defensive in the presence of others. The only thing preventing the outbreak of full-fledged hostility is the word that's repeated much more frequently than it's believed: choice. It's the notion that nowadays women can and do have choices.

Now along comes Mr. McCaffery to remind us that ''choices'' are often weighted by outside forces. And just in time for April 15, he wants us to focus on the forces written into our tax laws.

Look at the social policy behind taxes, implores the author of ''Taxing Women.'' It's no more neutral today than it was in 1948 when the tax law was deliberately revised, in the words of a government drafter, Stanley Surrey, so that wives ''may turn from their partnership 'duties' to the pursuit of homemaking.''

Built-in prejudice

Today's conservatives say that women have been forced to work to pay confiscatory taxes. But Mr. McCaffery shows how the tax laws favor traditional single-earner families. They have a built-in prejudice against married working mothers.

For openers, filing jointly encourages couples to think of primary and secondary earners. And it's the secondary earners, almost always women, whose earnings are taxed at a higher rate.

Assume, for example, that an upper-income man earns $100,000 a year. The first $16,000 he earns is tax free. But when her $30,000 income is put on top of his, every one of her dollars is taxed at his highest rate. When you subtract Social Security taxes, state and local taxes, she takes home $15,000.

That's before child care and other work expenses. At middle- and upper-income households, two-thirds of the average working wife's salary is lost to taxes and work-related expenses. Part-timers may be working at a loss.

Matter of semantics

Of course in theory, we could alter the language instead of the system. We could call the mother the primary worker. But it isn't just a matter of semantics.

As Mr. McCaffery warns, ''Sometimes a change in language can get ahead of a change in laws and social structure.'' Not only have women historically been at home but in most families wives earn less. In real family life they are thought of as the secondary worker.

In a trip through the arcane world of taxes, the University of Southern California professor shows how the tax policy affects couples by class. At the lowest level, a bias against the two-worker family is a bias against families themselves. At the upper level, it reinforces the most traditional CEO families. In the middle, it makes hard personal choices even harder economic choices.

Middle-class women, says Mr. McCaffery, ''are between a rock and a hard place. They are not making that much money. On the one hand they can stay home and avoid stresses but they pay a price in the long run. They sacrifice earnings down the road and it's hard if they end up divorced. On the other hand they can go to work but it's very stressful.''

A personal bias

Mr. McCaffery admits to a personal bias in favor of more equal and flexible families. But as it is, the tax structure pushes families into more traditional roles than they may wish. When a family needs to raise income, for example, it often makes more economic sense for the husband to work longer hours than for the wife to work part-time. Economic sense and common sense collide.

''We shouldn't pretend the laws are neutral or fair,'' he says. If we want a social policy that rewards families when mothers stay home with their children and fathers keep longer hours on the job -- let's debate it and acknowledge it. If, on the other hand, we want a more balanced life between men and women, work and family, it's time to level the playing field.

To right the tax prejudice, he says, we should at least alter the Social Security payments and benefits, and provide a deduction for child-care costs. If a skybox at the sports dome is a business expense, why not day care? At most, he supports conservative Michael Boskin's proposal to have husbands' incomes taxed more and wives' taxed less by filing individually.

Mr. McCaffery comes to his analysis as an observer of those ''mommy wars.'' He says, ''One of the worst features of our times is that women are divided and conflicted within themselves and among each other while men just march merrily along.''

If taxes were less rigged against working mothers, then fathers would also face those wonderful choices about work and family: The ones that you have and the ones you have to make.

It's April 15. Time to let the daddy wars begin.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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