The high price of being single

While the number of single households across Europe keeps rising, tax systems and the private market are tailored to couples and families. Is it time for singles to get politically organised?
With equal income, the living standard of a couple is 1.5 times higher than that of two single people.

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

13 Mar 2024

Last month, on 14 February, a Brussels fitness club sent a special offer to its members on the day devoted to the unescapable, institutionalised celebration of coupledom: “Add your Valentine to your membership! Exercising together is twice as much fun!”  

Yet, it is not twice as expensive.  

This is just one example illustrating a larger issue known as the ‘singles tax,’ referring to the manifold financial burdens single households have to bear. According to a study by the financial services firm Hargreaves Lansdown, the yearly cost of living for singles in the UK is £10,000 (€11,695) higher than for partnered persons. Similarly, in 2019, the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies found that, with equal income, the living standard of a couple is 1.5 times higher than that of two single people – debunking the idea that non-partnered persons have more income at their disposal.

Singles are society’s dairy cows.

But how exactly do these financial disadvantages manifest? First and foremost, national tax authorities tend to prioritise married people and family units through deductions and other benefits. A 2023 international comparison of tax burdens on singles shows that Belgium and Germany’s taxation rules are the most prohibitive, with a 53 per cent and 47.8 per cent income tax rate, respectively, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

Inheritance laws are equally disadvantageous for singles. In Belgium’s capital, for example, the inheritance tax paid by singles can be more than double that owed by a parent or married person. While parents can pass on property to their children at a taxable rate of 30 per cent, a person who has been left real estate by a single godparent could be required to pay a tax rate as high as 80 per cent. 

“Singles are cross-financing families in a major way, and the general population just doesn’t acknowledge this,” says Sylvia Locher, the president of Pro Single Switzerland, an organisation that defends the rights of those living alone. In an interview with The Parliament, Locher acknowledges that raising children is costly. “But when you live alone, the per capita expenses are so much higher as you have to do the lifting by yourself,” she says. “As a single person, you never qualify for any benefits. Singles are society’s dairy cows.”

Policies should neither favour nor penalise, and treat all lifestyles equally.

In addition to the political disadvantages of many tax regimes, singles also face economic discrimination in the private market. Housing, mobile phone plans, gym memberships, internet and streaming subscriptions – it all adds up. While companies often offer various discounted plans for families and couples, singles generally have to pay full price.

At the same time, one-person households are growing. According to the EU statistics office Eurostat, they are on the rise across the 27-member bloc, while the average number of people sharing a household is expected to further decrease in the future. From 2009 to 2022, single-person households without children grew by 30.7 per cent across the EU, Eurostat data shows. 

In Belgium, a recent study by the country’s Federal Planning Bureau concluded that one-person households already constitute the majority in 90 per cent of all cities and municipalities, a tenfold increase since the 1990s.  

As the number of singles has swelled, organisations fighting for their equal treatment have also emerged, while researchers and politicians have started paying attention. “I've been shouting alone into the desert for so many years,” says Carla Dejonghe, a member of the local parliament in Brussels who has been working on the issue for a long time. 

Dejonghe’s goal is to create more awareness around the various ways in which singles face discrimination. She’s also an advocate for what she dubs the “single reflex,” which embodies the concept that lawmakers should consider the impact of new policies on single households. She believes it’s time to bury the cliché of the happy, Sex and the City single. “Many people live in single households involuntarily. My mother is a widow, and she never planned to live on her own,” Dejonghe adds.  “We need to realise that it can happen to anyone.”

Locher of Pro Single Switzerland also criticises the lack of political interest in the issue, pointing out that a comprehensive report on the situation of families is published every two years in Switzerland. Her organisation fought for years to get a similar overview on the situation of singles. “And you know what? It isn’t even 20 pages long,” she says. “This is clear-cut discrimination. You need useful numbers and reports to advance a cause.”

Politicians are realising there are a lot of us, and they need our votes.

Although single households account for a large part of society, they haven’t emerged as a strong political force so far. Annukka Lahti, a social sciences researcher at the Academy of Finland, examined the media coverage of singles in the country. Her main finding? Singlehood is not politicised, in contrast to other marginalised identities. “Although it’s such a common way to live – if you compare it to LGBTQ+ for example, where people connect and politically organise, this is not the case for singles; it’s always perceived as a very individualised issue.”

After all, single households are extremely heterogeneous, ranging from students to retirees. According to Locher, these differences become obvious when her advocacy group drafts policy proposals. “Some of our members are located rather left politically; others are more right-wing,” she says. “When you have to make it fit for everyone, the final text might be less powerful.”

Still, progress has been made. The Cambridge Dictionary now includes “singlism,” a term coined by Bella DePaulo, a US social scientist who wrote a 2007 article that broke ground for offering the first empirical evidence of the discrimination of singles. According to Lahti, more and more research on singles is emerging, especially in the US, as well as India and Japan. “Change is happening. It’s being thematised,” she says.

Living alone is very common – we haven’t caught up with reality yet.

Locher has also noticed a new interest in the topic and notes that Pro Single Switzerland used to have to reach out to politicians. “Now they’re coming to us and we get a lot of media requests,” she says. “Politicians are realising there are a lot of us, and they need our votes.”

Meanwhile, Dejonghe is celebrating a small but significant victory in Belgium, where the Brussels municipal council of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre has become the first municipality in the country to evaluate the impact of its policies on single residents. “Policies should neither favour nor penalise, and treat all lifestyles equally,” says Dejonghe.

At the European level, the situation is bleaker. When asked about the impact of EU policies on singles, a spokesperson for the European Parliament’s equality committee pointed to recent reports it has commissioned on the situation of single mothers, single parents, and women. There are no reports specifically focusing on singles without children.

For Lahti, the Finnish researcher, the couple continues to hold a very specific normative status in society. “It makes other ways of living seem non-normative,” she says. “But living alone is very common – we haven’t caught up with reality yet.” 

Read the most recent articles written by Sarah Schug - Unpacking the most contested aspects of the EU’s new Migration and Asylum Pact