Laura Pedrick for The New York Times
Two-year-old Evan plays with his dads, Kevin Yoder, right, and Harvey Hurdle at their Philadelphia home.
Much of the debate over legalizing gay marriage has focused on God and Scripture, the Constitution and equal protection. But we see the world through the prism of money. And for years, we’ve heard from gay couples about all the extra health, legal and other costs they bear. So we set out to determine what they were and to come up with a round number — a couple’s lifetime cost of being gay. It was much more complicated than we initially imagined, and that’s probably why we’ve never seen similar efforts. We looked at benefits that routinely go to married heterosexual couples but not to gay couples, like certain Social Security payments. We plotted out the cost of health insurance for couples whose employers don’t offer it to domestic partners. Even tax preparation can cost more, since gay couples have to file two sets of returns. Still, many couples may come out ahead in one area: they owe less in income taxes because they’re not hit with the so-called marriage penalty.
Our goal was to create a hypothetical gay couple whose situation would be similar to a heterosexual couple’s. So we gave the couple two children and assumed that one partner would stay home for five years to take care of them. We also considered the taxes in the three states that have the highest estimated gay populations — New York, California and Florida. We gave our couple an income of $140,000, which is about the average income in those three states for unmarried same-sex partners who are college-educated, 30 to 40 years old and raising children under the age of 18.
Here is what we came up with. In our worst case, the couple’s lifetime cost of being gay was $467,562. But the number fell to $41,196 in the best case for a couple with significantly better health insurance, plus lower taxes and other costs.
These numbers will vary, depending on a couple’s income and circumstance. Gay couples earning, say, $80,000, could have health insurance costs similar to our hypothetical higher-earning couple, but they might well owe more in income taxes than their heterosexual counterparts. For wealthy couples with a lot of assets, on the other hand, the cost of being gay could easily spiral into the millions.
Nearly all the extra costs that gay couples face would be erased if the federal government legalized same-sex marriage. One exception is the cost of having biological children, but we felt it was appropriate to include this given our goal of outlining every cost gay couples incur that heterosexual couples may not.
Our analysis is not exact science. Not every couple would get married if they could, and others would not want to have children. We also made a number of assumptions based on average costs, life spans, state of residence and gender.
Our gay family is made up of two women living in New York State in a committed partnership that lasts 46 years, until the first partner dies at age 81. We ran two sets of calculations: in the one that turned out to be our worst case financially, one woman earned $110,000 and the other $30,000. In our second couple, both partners earned $70,000. We started running the numbers when both were age 35.
We received assistance from Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, who performed our tax analysis, which required simulating more than 900 income tax returns, in part because we followed the partners for 50 years. We also decided to run all scenarios across the three states so that the results would not be skewed by different state taxes. We’ve outlined all the detail in a workbook linked to the online version of this column.
As for the emotional costs of living with these added complexities, they can’t be quantified. Frederick Hertz, a lawyer in Oakland, Calif., who works with same-sex couples, likens heterosexual marriage to being in the car pool lane. “Being part of a same-sex couple, it’s always stop. Wait. Pay a toll,” he said.
Harvey Hurdle, who lives in Philadelphia with his partner and their young son, said he was reminded of the disparities every time his Social Security statement arrived in the mail. “It’s pretty insulting,” he said. “It says your spouse would get this much. And it’s like, ‘Oh no he won’t!’ ”
In our worst case, the lower earner’s employer did not provide health insurance and her partner’s employer didn’t cover domestic partners. So the lower earner had to buy coverage on the private market, while the higher-earning partner provided coverage for herself and the two children. All this cost the gay couple $211,993 more than their heterosexual married counterparts, who were able to take advantage of the higher-earner’s family coverage.
In our best case, health coverage cost the gay couple $28,595 more. We assumed both gay partners were eligible for employer-provided coverage. The higher-earner’s employer also provided domestic partner coverage, which covered her partner for the five years she stayed at home. When she returned to work, she used her own employer’s insurance.
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