National News

Getting married can cost you at tax time

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-06 11:09

When Adena DeMonte first met her boyfriend Dan, he put one thing out on the table: one day, he wanted to get married. His own parents had never tied the knot, and he'd grown up wanting to have marriage in his life.

“So from day one of our relationship, we literally had this conversation,” DeMonte says. “I basically committed to him that not then, but one day, I would get married.”

Fast forward nine years, they've got good careers in the tech industry, an apartment together in Mountain View, California and DeMonte's starting to feel ready to make good on that marriage promise.

There's one thing you should know about her: she's a total finance nut. So much so, that she thought she'd broach the marriage conversation with Dan by talking about tax savings.

“Kind of to tease him a little bit,” she says. “'If we were married, we would save x number of dollars this year and next year.'"

But, when DeMonte looked up that number of dollars online, she discovered that if she and Dan got married this year, they'd actually pay about $1,000 more in taxes than they would as single people. If they both make more money down the line, they could get an even higher tax penalty for being married.

The idea that marriage might cost her tens of thousands of dollars some day, when those dollars might sustain her if she lost her job or wanted to stay home with kids, suddenly didn't seem very responsible — which was pretty tough news to break to Dan.

“We both said, 'Wow that's crazy that the government is actually saying that if you are two people making the same amount of money married, versus two people making the same amount of money separate, you're actually going to end up paying more,'” she says.

The marriage penalty comes from an attempt to make taxes fairer. Up until the 1940s, couples would file as individuals, but around World War II, when the top income tax rate was very high, some rich couples were figuring out a trick. Say one spouse made a $100,000 a year and the other made nothing. If they split it, report that each spouse made $50,000, they'd dodge the highest tax bracket. A good deal for them, but unfair to less-savvy tax filers.

“So the result in 1948 was actually just to accept that benefit, and give it to every married couple,"says Stephanie McMahon of the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

The government decided to let every married couple file jointly.

“Every married couple could shift income from one spouse and split it between both spouses,” McMahon says.

But single people started complaining about the fairness of filing jointly, questioning why married people got to save money on taxes. In 1969, McMahon says, single individuals managed to get a reduced tax bracket compared to joint filers.

This created the little-known singles bonus. But there's a problem, if someone is in a marriage where both people make a similar amount of money, they don't get any benefit from shifting their income between spouses. So, they pay more taxes than everyone else.

The cutoffs for certain tax benefits, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, are lower for two married people than they are for two single people. So lower-income married couples can get penalized too.

James Alm, an economist at Tulane University, found a small, but significant, impact of the marriage penalty on people's marriage decisions.

"A 10 percent increase in the marriage penalty decreases the likelihood of your getting married by one or two percent," he says.

But it's more about the principle of the thing to him.

“The main factor in regards to the marriage penalty is just kind of the notion of fairness,” he says. “Is it appropriate that people's taxes should change, positively or negatively, simply because they're getting married?”

Alm would prefer to return to a system where everyone files as an individual, a trend he sees in other countries right now.

Meanwhile, Adena DeMonte is still weighing her options.

“If anyone out there can convince me that I should get married, please do, because I want to get married. But it just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense right now," she says.

She says if Dan proposed today, she'd say yes. But instead of actually getting married, she'd ask to have a lawyer write up a marriage-like commitment agreement for them — which she admits, sounds terribly unromantic.

Baby bottle service: a club scene for kids only

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-06 11:08

Instead of house or trance music, it’s mostly pop and dance remixes blaring from the speakers at Cielo, a club in Manhattan’s trendy meatpacking district. The music’s loud, but not too loud. Club-goers in T-shirts and Converse sneakers fill the dance floor, coated in neon stickers with glowsticks looped around their necks and wrists.

While a team of professional dancers call out steps, 7-year-old Atlas Geirsson is busy covering himself in orange tape that glows under the club’s lights. In a word, he thinks the party is “awesome.”

Kids ranging from 3 to 12-year-olds, joined by their parents, came clubbing in New York to celebrate Halloween 2014.


For 8-year-old Jeremy Vanderhook, it’s all about the novelty: “I’ve never been to a club before,” Vanderhook says.

“You have all of these beautiful venues that are vacant during the day,” says Jesse Sprague, who runs these events with his wife Jenny Song through their company, Cirkiz.

“We joke with the bouncer when we come in [to a club] for the first time,” he says. “We say, ‘You have the opposite job today, your job is to keep everyone in.’”

Sprague used to manage nightclubs and met Song at the Limelight two decades ago, at a party for fashion designer Jean Paul Gautier’s birthday. When they became parents and wanted to throw a party for their son’s first birthday — forget Chuck E. Cheese or a bouncy castle — a club seemed a natural choice for them.

The positive feedback from their guests gave them the idea to develop a business around kids’ parties. Their model is relatively simple: rent the clubs during the day when they’d usually be closed, hire entertainers, add some decorations, offer food and charge for admission. A single person costs $20 with group packages topping $1,000 or more.

Kids dance at a New York club during a party organized by CirKiz last October.


Cirkiz’s last three monthly parties have sold out at 300 spots each. That’s encouraged Sprague and Song to look for opportunities to expand, perhaps to larger clubs and other cities.

Mom Kelvia Rosario comes to the grown-up version of Cielo every couple of months — it’s one of her favorite nightspots. When she heard they were hosting kids’ parties, she decided to bring her five-year-old son Ociel. 

Ociel, dressed in a button -own shirt, was practically hugging his mom’s leg at the edge of the dance floor, not yet ready to join in. For some kids, club life takes a little getting used to.

A robot entertainer delights kids at a party hosted in a nightclub for Halloween 2014.


Sandwich Monday: Pizza-Flavored Energy Paste

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 11:06

For this week's Sandwich Monday, we try a new food for athletes: liquid pizza. It's Clif Bar's "energy food" made with tomatoes, carrots, quinoa, sunflower seed butter and sugar.

» E-Mail This

Landing on a value for the United States

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-06 11:06

It might just be the the real estate story to end all real estate stories.

There's a new paper out from the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Commerce Department about the value of the land in the United States.

Well, the 48 contiguous states, at least.

It all adds up to 1.89 billion acres, worth a grand total of approximately $23 trillion. California is cited as the most valuable state, and Wyoming the least.

The federal government owns 24 percent of all the land by area, but just 8 percent by dollar value.

Iran has big economic potential ... eventually

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-06 11:04

President Obama is now trying to sell the framework agreement to monitor and limit Iran's nuclear program to the American people, to skeptical members of Congress and to very skeptical allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

A final deal will still be difficult to conclude and could be scuttled by opponents in Congress or Tehran, but if Iran does eventually emerge from decades of economic sanctions (originally dating to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and significantly expanded by the U.N. in 2006), it could become a regional economic powerhouse.

According to sources including the CIA World Factbook, the World Bank and the United Nations, Iran has: 

  • The largest natural gas reserves in the world.
  • The third-largest proven oil reserves in the world.
  • Among the most zinc in the world, plus copper, iron, lead and coal.
  • Well-developed industry compared to its Middle East neighbors, including auto and cement plants, food production and telecom.
  • More than 75 million consumers, many of them middle class and attuned to Western products and styles. 

“If sanctions are removed, then you could see a country that becomes quite dynamic and would be seen as the next big emerging market,” says Daniel Yergin, energy expert at IHS and author of "The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World." 

Iran also has  a skilled, well-educated, highly literate population, says Kaveh Ehsani at DePaul University.

"The human resources are tremendous, the higher-education system is very good and Iranian students are highly motivated," Ehsani says.  

But there are significant obstacles to Iran becoming a significant player in global markets, Eshani and others point out. The biggest potential global entry for Iran would be in natural gas. By sheer reserves, Iran could knock out Russia as the major supplier to Europe. But sanctions have left Iran’s infrastructure outdated and in ill-repair, says former oil trader Stephen Schork, editor of the Schork Report.

The country also lacks adequate pipelines or liquid natural-gas plants to get its gas to market. And it would have to significantly improve relations with neighbors to add new pipeline capacity across their territories. 

“I am skeptical that Iran can compete with Russia or Qatar or Australia or the United States,” says Schork.

Other analysts say that decades of sanctions and economic isolation combined with Iran’s centralized theocratic government, have suffocated the private sector and innovation, and bred corruption among a powerful conservative political elite that may not want its wings clipped by economic reformers now.

Selling Girl Scout cookies in the digital age

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-06 11:03

Think of Girl Scouts and immediately, the mind wanders back to a box Thin Mints stored away in the freezer. But besides building business savvy with cookie selling, Girl Scouts also aims to teach young women leadership, compassion and other lifelong skills.

Anna Maria Chávez grew up in Eloy, Arizona, participating in her local Girl Scout troop. Now, as CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, Chavez wants to be an advocate for the organization.

"I go out to local communities and talk to their local leaders about the need to invest in girls," says Chávez, who took on the organization's top job in 2011 and is the first Latina at the helm.

Today’s young workers will be part of one of the most technologically advanced generations. With that in mind, the Girls Scouts decided to integrate technology into their famous cookie business.

"Just this year, we created the first ever digital cookie program," Chávez says. "It allowed girls to use the technology they use every day to create their own business online."

The digital cookie program teaches some basic principles of running an online business, and as well as giving buyers an option to have orders shipped or delivered in person. Taking the cookie business onto the web was a slow process, Chávez says, because of safety concerns about exposing Scouts to new technologies.

"It's a pretty complicated Girl Scout program," she says. "When you think about the millions of customers we touch every day during our Girl Scout cookie program, and the transactions that happen, we had to ensure that customers felt comfortable giving us their Visa numbers and that girls were also in a safe space to communicate with adults."

Chávez says the biggest type of investment young girls need from adults is time. Unfortunately, there are not enough adults volunteering to lead troops, she says.

"Right now, sadly, I have about 30,000 girls on a wait list to be a Girl Scout," she says. "The reality is, because of the economy, people having to work two jobs, it’s harder and harder for adults to find time to volunteer."

The environmental cost of corn

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-06 11:00

A new study, which shows farmers have recently converted millions of acres of grassland to plant crops like corn, highlights a not-so-obvious downside: converting grassland to cropland has a large carbon footprint. 

The primary reason is not the diesel farmers burn with their tractors. Rather, the release of carbon comes from microbes that lie dormant in the soil, according to the study's lead author, Tyler Lask, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.

"When they are tilled up and exposed to oxygen, they 'wake up,' in a sense," Lark says. "When they go through that process, just like humans, they release CO2 when they 'exhale.'”

In addition to that one-time release, harvesting annual crops like corn does not store as much carbon in the soil as allowing perennials like grass to stay put.

That’s the biology. Markets play a role too, with high prices in recent years creating big incentives for farmers to convert more grassland to grow corn.

Government policies contribute as well. For instance, one driver for those high prices was a federal mandate to add more ethanol to the gasoline supply, which pushed up demand. Another policy may have played a role too: subsidized crop insurance, which mitigates financial risk to farmers.

"A lot of those lands that are being converted are high-risk lands," says Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University economist who studies corn markets. "I think you can point the finger directly at the crop-insurance program for de-risking that conversion decision."

Those decisions may be more difficult to undo, thanks to a third policy decision: a provision in the 2014 farm bill, cutting back a program that pays farmers to set aside land for conservation. 

Two years of bumper crops have created huge surpluses, and dramatically lower corn prices — conditions that would make the conservation program more attractive to farmers — but the program's smaller size means fewer farmers can participate.

Babcock is less concerned about the carbon impacts of these conversions than about the fact some of these grasslands provided habitats for songbirds.

"We can do lots of CO2 mitigation by simply converting coal-fired plants into natural gas or solar," he says. "It's very hard to replace songbird habitats."

Tracking Your Own Health Data Too Closely Can Make You Sick

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 10:05

Why not get bloodwork done a few times a year, as some celebrities advise? Because too much testing can lead to false positives, abnormalities that don't threaten health, and to unnecessary treatment.

» E-Mail This Website Offers To Help Americans Trapped In Yemen

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 09:43

The site was created after Arab-American advocacy groups began to hear from U.S. citizens stuck in Yemen. The groups are pushing the U.S. government to step in and help those who are unable to leave.

» E-Mail This

Flight Or Fight? Air India Grounds Pilots After Reported Cockpit Brawl

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 09:21

The co-pilot, upset over instructions from the commander, apparently "beat up the captain," The Times of India reported. An airline spokesman said the two men had "an argument ... nothing more."

» E-Mail This

Does Your Food Have A Bad Case Of The Blahs? Put An Egg On It!

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 08:41

If you're wondering what to do with all those eggs left over from Easter, we're here to help. Inspired by Portlandia and Beyonce, we'll show you all the ways you can put an egg on it.

» E-Mail This

Opening Day: Baseball Season Starts In Earnest

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 08:40

In 204 days, two teams will face off in the World Series. Until then, fans can dream about their team winning it all, as Major League Baseball's season gets going.

» E-Mail This

'Collective Fault' At 'Rolling Stone' Led To Rape Story, Columbia Says

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 08:37

The university released a report into the magazine's story about a young woman who said she was gang-raped during a fraternity party at the University of Virginia.

» E-Mail This

In New Orleans, The Scramble For The Right Fit

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 08:19

At the annual Schools Expo in February, families tried to match their needs with the best schools under the city's choice system. This month, they'll find out where they've been assigned.

» E-Mail This

Why there's no rush to jump into the presidential race

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-06 07:32

Planning on running for president? Don’t say you’re testing the waters. Because once you form an exploratory committee, or outright announce you’re running, there are limits on how much money you can raise and how you can spend it. So presidential hopefuls act like candidates, but wait to make it official.

“The 2016 election is shaping up so far to be the biggest joke under the campaign-finance laws,” says Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. “It’s an arms race. When some candidates do it, the other candidates think, unless I act the same way, I’m just going to get swamped.”

As long as you’re not an official candidate for president, you can raise millions of dollars for your super PAC — and coordinate with it closely.    

“You can say, 'Here are five people I want you to hire,'" says Bob Biersack, who worked at the FEC for 30 years. "You can say, 'You should be advertising in these states and these are the messages you should use.'”

Once a candidate makes it official, that game plan goes out the window. They also have to publicly report how much money they've raised. Biersack and Noble are now advocates of campaign-finance reform.

Dan Backer is on the other side of the spectrum. He’s a conservative lawyer who brought a Supreme Court challenge to campaign finance regulations. He says the law is clear, and says reformers are just complaining that the spirit of the law isn't being followed.

“The law doesn't have a spirit," he says. "It has ink and it has paper, and we need to do exactly what the law says it is to be compliant.”

Plus, even if the FEC worried that non-presidential candidates weren't being compliant, and decided to look into whether anyone was breaking the law, any investigation would take years and wouldn't be finished until after the 2016 presidential election.

A Facebook First: Judge Allows N.Y. Woman To File For Divorce Using Site

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 06:58

Attempts by Ellanora Biadoo to reach her husband, Victor Sena Blood-Dzraku, were unsuccessful. But he has kept in touch exclusively via phone and Facebook.

» E-Mail This

Boston Marathon Bombing: Lawyers Make Closing Arguments

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 06:20

Accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is expected to be found guilty. But his lawyers have argued he should be spared the death penalty because his older brother masterminded the deadly 2013 attack.

» E-Mail This

French Special Forces Free Dutch Hostage Held In Mali Since 2011

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 05:54

Sjaak Rijke had been seized in Timbuktu along with two other men in November 2011. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders calls it an "end to a terrible period of uncertainty and grief."

» E-Mail This

Report: Jeb Bush Self-Identified As Hispanic On Voter Application In '09

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 05:41

A spokeswoman for the former Florida governor and presumptive GOP presidential candidate could not explain the characterization to the newspaper.

» E-Mail This

NCAA Men's Final: Wisconsin And Duke Play For It All Monday Night

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-06 04:33

For Wisconsin, a win would bring its first title since 1941. Perennial power Duke last won it all in 2010. The game will tip off at 9:18 p.m. ET.

» E-Mail This