Now consider Fran and Bill, a hypothetical married couple with two preschool children. Both work full-time and earn a combined income of $47,700. We'll assume they pay $7,000 for child care ($30 a day, five days a week), and $3,650 in Social Security and Medicare taxes. This leaves about$37,000 (still nearly twice the poverty threshold), or about $3,100 a month, to pay all other expenses. We don't have to elaborate on the details to reach an obvious conclusion: It's a lot easier, given economies of scale, for Fran and Bill to meet their family's basic living expenses on $3,100 a month than it is for Meg to cover her basic living expenses on $740 a month.
Moreover, at their income level, Fran and Bill are more likely than Meg to receive benefits at work, such as paid health insurance premiums or contributions to a retirement plan, none of which count as income on their tax return. This means that their actual income may be greater than $47,700, yet they still don't owe any income tax. Meg probably has only her $9,600 because jobs at her salary level usually offer no benefits.
If the scandal here were limited to Meg's income tax of $30 on the difference between her $9,300 tax threshold and the $9,600 poverty threshold, our outrage would be limited. But if Congress is going to recognize, as it should, that a family of four needs income far in excess of its poverty threshold before it can afford to pay an income tax, simple tax justice requires that the same principle be extended to a single person. We may debate the income level at which the change should be made, but I believe the starting point of the discussion should be no less than $1,200 to $1,500 a month ($14,400 to $18,000 a year), from which the federal government will subtract 7.65 percent for Social Security and Medicare taxes. With these new thresholds, we're talking about roughly 8 million to 11 million additional single people who would be protected from being taxed; and in their cases, the tax savings would range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 a year -- amounts vitally important to them.
But I would go further. The injustice is not limited to singles who should be spared paying any tax. The initial tax threshold for all singles, including those with higher incomes, should be set so that not one of them pays a tax until their income exceeds a level we regard as necessary to meet basic living expenses. This is what Congress does for that family of four; this is what voters should insist it do for the household of one. Until that time, the great majority of singles in this country can legitimately argue that, at least for tax purposes, they are treated like second-class citizens.
Singles know this is a big election year. They also should know that, in the past, they have had a poor voting record, which no doubt goes far toward explaining their treatment under the tax laws. If singles were to let their candidates for Congress and the White House know that they are going to vote in droves this year, and that they expect to vote for candidates who promise to fix these tax injustices, I'm betting plenty of those candidates would listen up.
John Fox teaches tax policy at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. His most recent book is "10 Tax Questions the Candidates Don't Want You To Ask."