When it comes to taxes, Americans prefer families

WHEN and if America's two highest-rated TV singles - "Bachelorette" Trista Rehn and "Joe Millionaire" star Evan Marriott - do pick a mate and get married this year, they may or may not find everlasting marital bliss.

But at least they're likely to get a bigger tax cut, thanks to President Bush. And if they happen to have offspring, they'll get even more trimmed off their tax bill.

That's because one of the big tenets of Mr. Bush's $674-billion plan is serious tax relief for married couples, especially those with kids. It's part of a broader Republican-led effort in recent years to bolster the traditional family.

Yet relief for marrieds comes at a price: a growing so-called "bachelor's tax" on singles. And with burgeoning numbers of single Americans - unmarried couples, solo singles, and others - there's new potential for a bachelor-tax backlash.

This element of the Bush tax plan has gotten relatively little public attention. But it reflects a decades-old tension over the shape of the stereotypical American family, in which the tax code is a prime cultural-political battleground. Tax policy is, to some extent, also a window into the nation's attitudes toward the institution of marriage.

"If you're married, you tend to get more than if you're single" under the Bush plan, says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at tax publisher CCH in Riverwoods, Ill. "If you have children, you save more than if you don't."

It's an echo of 1994's Newt Gingrich-led Contract With America, he says, and emanates from the idea that "we should treat two people living together as a married unit differently from when they were living apart."

Politicians, Republicans in particular, have talked about the need to fix the "marriage penalty" - a tilt in the tax code that levies more on some married couples than if they were singles. The proposal Bush announced last week would accelerate the effort to address the issue.

But it means that in some cases, the tax cut for singles is minimal. Under Bush's plan, a married couple with two kids making $40,000 a year would get a $1,133 tax break. A married couple with no children earning $40,000 would get $450. And a single person with no kids making $40,000 would get $126, according to the Tax Foundation and the Deloitte Touche tax group. An rise in the child tax credit to $1,000 from $600 is a further bonus to couples with kids.

Because of the tax code's complexity, it's mathematically impossible to eliminate both the "marriage penalty" and the "singles penalty," experts say. It's always a trade-off.

And it has been for decades - ever since Congress gave post-World War II newlyweds big tax breaks. Back then, a married couple paid up to 40 percent less in taxes than two single people with the same combined salary.

Then came the War Widows of America - actual widows along with single women who said they couldn't get married because so many men had died in the war. In an echo of the Boston Tea Party, they sent thousands of tea bags to Congress in protest of the "widow's tax." It worked. In 1969, Congress moved to equalize the code.

The 21st-century twist on the debate is the growing number of nontraditional families. "I'm really skeptical that marriage is somehow perceived as the answer to all of our social ills," says Leslie Talmadge, a graduate student in New York City. "There are so many nontraditional couples and families these days."

Yet some married parents say they play a special role in society that should be acknowledged. "Whatever you can do to support families is a good thing," says Dale Dubowy, a San Francisco area mother of two, whose husband is a police sergeant. She recently quit her full-time job to be with her kids more. After all, she says, "These kids are going to be making decisions that affect us all someday."

Such sentiments represent a broader cultural-political debate. Married parents "ought to be given help because of the social good they provide" in raising children, says Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group in Colorado Springs, Colo. He admits that marriage isn't the silver bullet for social ills but observes that well-parented kids often cause less crime or other problems, thus costing society and the government less money. And good parenting is more likely among committed couples, he says.

The GOP's traditional-family approach also includes abstinence education for teens and encouraging welfare moms to marry.

But this doesn't reflect the complexities of modern American life, argues Thomas Coleman, executive director of the American Association for Single People in Los Angeles.

Nearly half of all American households are headed by unmarried adults - solo singles, cohabiting couples, domestic partners, widows and widowers, and others. So to discriminate against them is bad public policy, he says. Besides, not everyone can be married - even if they want to be. He includes everyone from gays to those who simply haven't found true love.

Indeed, unlike Mr. Marriott and Ms. Rehn, not everyone gets, or wants, their own prime-time network show to help them find a mate - and lower their taxes.

Ashley Chapman in New York contributed to this report.

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