WASHINGTON — A SIMPLE gold wedding band still costs under $100, but for many Americans, the price of marriage keeps going up, thanks to Uncle Sam.
During the past 24 years, federal tax law has imposed a "marriage penalty" on millions of working couples. Now President Clinton would make the marriage penalty even steeper.
The tax bite is particularly deep on upper-income families, whose extra taxes can run to $10,000 or more a year. But the marriage penalty also crimps the finances of some lower-income families that make about $24,000.
Dan Mitchell, a tax specialist at the Heritage Foundation, says he doubts the Clinton administration took special aim at families with its proposed tax changes. The White House needs to find revenue, and two-income families are a lucrative source, he explains.
However, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, is not so charitable. He complains that Mr. Clinton's policies will worsen the plight of families.
Mr. Reed says: "He promised to lower taxes on families with children.... He has not only broken the promise, but exacerbated the burden of the [marriage] penalty."
Yet some Democrats doubt that Americans will worry about well-to-do, two-earner families, many of them professionals, who will get hit hardest.
For example, Clinton would impose a 10 percent surtax on incomes above $250,000. For tax purposes, the incomes of married persons are combined. So two married persons who each make $250,000 would pay the 10 percent surtax on half their total income of $500,000. Meanwhile, two single persons, each making $250,000, would pay no surtax, even if they lived together.
Many upper-middle-income Americans aren't exempt from the marriage penalty, either. The Clinton proposal increases the tax rate from 31 percent to 36 percent for married persons who together earn more than $140,000.
Critics note that a single person can earn up to $115,000 without paying the higher tax. But two married persons, each earning $75,000, would see their marginal tax rate climb to 36 percent.
In a recent report, the Wall Street Journal asked KPMG Peat Marwick, certified public accountants, to calculate the marriage penalty for various income levels. Peat Marwick found that not only were affluent Americans impacted, but married, low-income wage-earners also sometimes paid a surprisingly high price.
Peat Marwick used an example of a single mother with two children, and a single father with one child. Each parent earns $12,000. Because they live alone, they each get back an earned income credit from the government. Yet if the parents got married, under current law they would incur taxes and loss of benefits of $3,575. Clinton's plan would boost the penalty to $4,040.
Ironically, there is a "marriage bonus" for some traditional families in which only one spouse works.
Under the $115,000/$140,000 feature of the Clinton plan, a single person gets lifted into the 36 percent bracket at $115,000. But a husband whose wife does not work could earn up to $140,000 before the higher rate took effect.
A TAX specialist on Capitol Hill says the "penalty" got built into law in 1969, when very few married women worked outside the home. The penalty was essentially irrelevant.
By 1992, however, husbands and wives were working full time in 26 percent of American families, the Census Bureau reports. In 59 percent of families, both partners worked at least part time.
Chris Peacock, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, points out that not every married working couple faces a tax penalty.
"If two people are each making about $35,000, and they get married, there is no penalty. So it is not true that if people get married, there is [always] a penalty," he says.
Privately speaking, Democratic tax specialists on Capitol Hill say that with more women in the work force, it may be time to review the marriage penalty.
Reed, whose Christian Coalition was founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, says the tax penalty is playing "a significant role in destroying the family.... By the force of law, it places the imprimatur of the federal government on people remaining unmarried and single."
Tax writers on Capitol Hill, however, say that unless more people complain about the marriage penalty - and few do - nothing will be done.