Social Security Disability papers. (Kevin Cook/For The Washington Post)

The April 12 Economy & Business article “U.S. falters in rate of women at work” focused on maternity leave and affordable child-care options. While maternity leave and affordable child care are surely factors that impact labor participation, the article should also have looked at how the U.S. tax system creates additional disincentives. Unlike almost all other countries, the United States requires married couples to combine their income for tax purposes, creating an unfair “marriage tax” by pushing married couples into higher marginal rates (though the marriage tax has been reduced in 2018). By contrast, other countries permit each spouse to report his or her income separately, so that a husband and a wife pay no more than an unmarried couple.

 The Social Security system creates additional disincentives, because each spouse is taxed individually but the couple receives fewer benefits than two single individuals.

The article also noted the “puzzling” fact that U.S. male labor force participation is declining sharply compared with that of other advanced economies. In fact, the reasons for declines in male labor force participation rates are well documented. Because low-wage U.S. workers typically lack access to health-insurance coverage, it is economically rational for such workers to enroll in Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicare or to keep income at a low threshold to qualify for Medicaid and other government benefits. 

Unless the marriage tax and health-care issues are addressed, U.S. workforce participation levels are likely to continue to lag behind those of other advanced economies.

Warren Gorlick, Washington