Racial disparities in the income tax treatment of marriage

Black man and woman in wedding attire
Editor's note:

This working paper is an updated version of an earlier report on racial disparities in the income tax code’s treatment of marriage. You can view the original version here. This new version was prepared for the National Bureau of Economic Research.


Although it is generally blind with respect to race, the federal individual income tax can create racial disparities when factors that affect tax liability are associated with race. We provide new evidence on racial differences in marriage penalties and bonuses in the income tax, using data from eight waves of the Survey of Consumer Finances. Our results support Brown’s (2021) hypothesis that, controlling for income, penalties are more frequent and larger for Black couples than white couples. We link these results to racial differences in relative spousal earnings, the presence of dependents, and the level of income. We show that marriage rates are much higher among white adults than Black adults, which implies that two policy reforms we examine end up benefiting a greater share of white adults than Black adults.

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  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    This work was supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Arnold Ventures. Other than the aforementioned, the authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. The authors are not currently an officer, director, or board member of any organization with a financial or political interest in this article.

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