That’s a lot of money the government (and single contributors to Social Security) gives to people for saying “I do.” But perhaps nothing illustrates the power of marital privilege more than this: unmarried people can ride on another person’s Social Security benefits if they were previously married to that person for at least ten years and are 62 and not entitled to Social Security based on their own work history…
Our single women would fall even more behind if they became disabled. Here’s why. Disability payments barely provide a livable wage. (We know this because one of us has a chronic illness, and while in the woe-is-me throes of a particularly bad flare-up she researched how much she would make if she went on disability. When she saw the numbers, she sucked it up and went back to work.) Such a system greatly favors married disabled people, because by adding their paltry disability payments to their spouse’s wages they can more likely come up with a livable income (although of course spousal support is by no means guaranteed—one’s husband may prefer to spend his money on food, shelter, or hobbies). Moreover, our unmarried women’s retirement accounts will suffer. Without a job and on a tight disability budget, she would likely struggle to save in an IRA, and as we described above, no one could save for her. However, the husband of a non-working, disabled married woman might manage to afford the yearly $5,000 contributions to the IRA…
When we calculated how much money our characters gained or lost altogether, our single women did indeed fare worse—much worse—than the married women. Their lifetime cost of being single?
Our lower-earning woman paid $484,368 for being single. Our higher-earning woman paid $1,022,096: more than a million dollars just for being single.
We anticipate that critics will point out that the numbers could be manipulated in any number of ways. At every stage in the process we, too, thought “these sums are just too crazy; surely we must have miscalculated or reasoned wrong.” We have, however, made only the most conservative of estimates and still reached the conclusion that, no matter which way you read the numbers, the final assessment remains the same: Singles get screwed.