My stomach sank as I read my friend Mia's note: "Thank you so much for your help in my time of transition. I wish I could pay you more, but until I'm working again, here's my check." For two years in our young publishing careers, Mia and I had worked in next-door cubicles and had made a Friday tradition of hitting the hot dog cart on the corner for lunch, because the vendor gave us each a two-for-one bargain. Last month, Mia had asked for my help revising her resume, as she was suffering another Oscar Mayer-flavored lean period. I wondered how she was staying out of therapy—or even just making rent. Yet I cashed her check.
A month earlier, I'd performed the same resume review for a friend-of-a-friend whom I'd met once at a party. Steven was a Princeton MBA hoping to get promoted to his Fortune 100 company's leadership program (cha-ching!) and whose wife (also a corporate manager) was expecting a baby. I spent as much time on his resume as I did on Mia's, but even if he'd offered to pay me, I'd decided I wouldn't accept his money—surely he could use it for the nursery renovations they were adding to their two-year-old suburban home.
It wasn't fair—why had I given the marrieds a financial break when it was clearly the single person who needed my kindness most? And was my financial foul indicative of a culture that penalizes single people for their relationship circumstances? I set out to investigate.
A 2007 statistic suggests that exactly half of the adult American population is married. And while the nation's estimated 82 million single people are targeted by advertisers as the world's hungriest consumers, both corporate America and the government are gaining reputations for rewarding married people with salary raises and sometimes even tax breaks.
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