It's Time to Queer Our Taxes

04/15/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

I have a confession to make: I spent about eight years working as a tax accountant before I went to law school.

I know what you're thinking. "What could possibly be more boring? I can't believe I'm reading this post!" Fair. But here's a secret: The lowly tax return, the bane of your existence, lifts more people out of poverty every year than any other federal program except Social Security.

"What?! Taxes are a social-justice issue?" Yup. So wipe the look of absolute boredom off your face and listen. Please.

Though we've all heard of Social Security, food stamps (aka SNAP), and welfare (aka TANF), few people realize that one of the primary ways we sustain our social safety net is through the tax code. There are several different ways we do that, but one of the most effective is through two tax credits: the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and the child tax credit (CTC).

A little under 30 percent of paid workers make below-poverty wages -- hourly pay that would be too low to support a family of four even if they worked full-time year-round. The EITC and CTC help millions of workers, including these below-poverty-wage workers, afford basic necessities like food, clothing, medical care, and housing. In 2013 the EITC and CTC lifted over 9 million people, 5 million of them children under 18, out of poverty and increased the incomes of about 22 million others; for reference, that's a population about the same size as Florida.

It sounds like these credits are doing a lot of good. So how is this a queer issue?

1. Because LGBTQ people are people.

Like everyone else, LGBTQ people benefit from programs that exist to improve the lives of low-income earners.

2. Because LGBTQ people are more likely to be living in or near poverty than the general population is.

An estimated 20 to 40 percent of youth who are experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ. Transgender people are four times more likely to be living in extreme poverty (earning under $10,000 a year) than non-transgender people are. Older female same-sex couples are twice as likely to be living in poverty. For Black and Latino same-sex couples the economic disparities are significantly larger. The gist of it is that LGBTQ people need access to credits like the EITC and the CTC because we are disproportionately living at or below the poverty line.

3. Because LGBTQ people don't always have access to tax credits like the EITC and the CTC.

In some states a same-sex couple can't get married, so they can't claim credits that are contingent on joint income. In many states same-sex couples can't -- or face significant barriers to their ability to -- adopt their own children. In order to claim the CTC, you must be able to form a legal relationship to your kid. The EITC also strongly favors parents who have a legal relationship to a child.

What does that mean? Let me give you an example. (Warning: This is where this post gets super-tax-nerdy. Take a deep breath.)

Renelle and Ashley have known each other since they were 10 and have been a couple for more years than they can count. A few years ago Renelle had a baby, Lola, who has lived with Renelle and Ashley for her entire life. In 2013 Renelle and Ashley moved to Renelle's native Georgia to find a quieter place for Lola to grow up. In 2014 Renelle and Ashley got married, but Georgia doesn't recognize their marriage. Ashley tried to adopt Lola when they lived in Wisconsin, but Wisconsin won't let second parents adopt. Ashley hasn't tried to adopt Lola in Georgia because she thinks it's hopeless. This year Ashley made $23,257, but Renelle hasn't been able to find paid work where she'll make more than the cost of day care. If they could file jointly, claiming Lola as a dependent, Renelle and Ashley would get an EITC of $3,305 and a $1,000 CTC, for a refund of at least $4,305. Because they can't file together (and because Lola's biological dad spent a fair amount of time with Lola this year), Ashley can't claim either of those credits. Their refund is about $26.

Renelle and Ashley's story is the lived reality of thousands of LGBTQ families across the country. And while more states are recognizing same-sex couples' right to marry, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to secure social justice for all. Ensuring that our families are recognized by the federal tax code is a queer issue. Updating our tax code must remain a key component of advancing freedom, equality, and justice for LGBTQ people. Quite simply, it's time to queer our taxes.

Seem crazy? Click here for more info.

Make sure to also check out

We need taxation with LGBTQ representation now.