America: Gender Inequality in a Land of Democracy

Release Date: February 20, 2008 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- American politics and federal tax law draw on outdated notions of the American family that continue to promote gender inequality and undermine the middle class, according to a University at Buffalo Law School professor.

"We're moving back toward a society modeled on an old-fashioned hierarchical household, where economic and political power is a privilege reserved for those at the top," says Martha T. McCluskey, professor and William J. Magavern Faculty Scholar in the UB Law School.

"This isn't a very democratic vision," McCluskey says. "It's a vision that draws on some of the assumptions of a feudal society where the king and the lord have all the power, and the members of the household were expected to serve, sacrifice and submit."

Americans like to think of their country as a gender-equal, egalitarian society, one that provides economic protection and security to all citizens, she says. Obviously, progress has been made. But a closer look at political discourse and the arcane details of American tax law reveal other messages: subtle yet influential bias against women and people with low-to-middle income jobs.

These messages contradict social citizenship, an idea that all Americans should be protected by certain economic and social rights simply by being a citizen, says McCluskey. The law professor's upcoming paper, "Razing the Citizen: Economic Inequality, Gender and Marriage Tax Reform," cites examples of how gender inequality has been translated into political and economic inequality:

When it comes to political discussion, for example, unflattering ideas about gender often are used to criticize legislation providing economic protection to the disadvantaged, McCluskey says. For example, conservatives have used "Nanny State" to describe policies protecting low-income people or consumers.

"It's a disparaging code word that means something seems wrong with a woman running the state," says McCluskey. "It also infantilizes those who should get more protection. The implication is in order to be a real grown-up, you have to be an independent breadwinner, without help from the government. But everyone, even those considered successful independent breadwinners, benefit from government support in ways not usually recognized as 'welfare' or 'social' spending -- like substantial tax breaks targeted to the wealthy.

She notes that pundits ridiculed John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign by using the term "girly girl" policies to describe liberal economic programs.

In the case of tax law, changes in the federal tax code promote an old-fashioned concept of a family with a patriarchal head of household, according to McCluskey. "It's an old model we think we've gone beyond, but it still comes up in a subtle way."

The so-called marriage bonus of 1948 might look like a policy that helps compensate women who give up income to devote themselves to family caretaking. But it actually ends up promoting more gender inequality.

McCluskey calls this marriage bonus the "affluent-husband-care subsidy," meaning it really works to encourage unpaid family caretaking for the high-earning spouse, who usually is the husband. It's not about raising children, she says. It brings no benefit to dual-earning families where wives may have a "double shift" of homemaking and a job. Instead, this policy encourages unpaid service to a high-earning spouse, typically a husband.

"Let's identify the priorities and values for what they really are," she says. "Is this the kind of family support that best benefits society as a whole, or is it just something that benefits a few?"

McCluskey applies the same cautions to changes in the tax code in 2001 and 2003 that largely eliminated the so-called marriage penalty. Some would see this as a benefit to struggling middle-class families, but a closer look reveals a deeper truth, according to McCluskey.

"What on the surface might be seen as relatively benign are in fact problematic," she says. "They draw on women's unequal positions in the family."

The tax penalty for equal-earning marriages was eliminated by increasing the bonus for unequal-earning marriages -- increasing what McCluskey calls the "affluent-husband-care subsidy." Eliminating the marriage penalty provides larger tax shelters to high-income married breadwinners with low-earning spouses. So the recent tax-policy change continues to hurt dual-earning married couples.

"It leaves out those families struggling the most," she says.

McCluskey says eliminating the marriage penalty was done in exchange for massive tax breaks for the country's super-rich. "It was a bribe or a payoff to the upper middle-class in exchange for pushing through these huge tax breaks for the very wealthy."

The same can be said for the Alternative Minimum Tax, originally aimed to close tax loopholes for the very wealthy.

"Instead of just applying to the upper and upper-middle class, it's working its way down to more of the middle-class.

"It undoes other family-related tax benefits. It's become a way of funding cuts in tax for the super-rich."

McCluskey's paper will be published as part of the "Dimensions of Women's Equal Citizenship" collection edited by Linda McClain and Joanna Grossman. She earned her law degree from Yale University and her doctorate in law from Columbia Law School.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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