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Why marriage should be recognised in the tax system

15 July 2009

10:57 AM

15 July 2009

10:57 AM

Cameron has been fairly bold in entering the debate on marriage, because we don’t like do that debate in Britain. Not really – it’s private, and we Brits don’t like debating private things. Anything which helps marriage can easily be paraphrased as "deploying fiscal incentives to force something which should largely be a private decision". And not by the left, but by our very own Pete Hoskin in the below post. Now, we are a heterodox bunch of baristas here at CoffeeHouse and we do disagree – so here is why I think Pete is wrong. I’d like to have a go offering some of the "convincing answers" he’s looking for.

Right now, millions of couples are better off apart under the perverted incentives of the welfare state. The Tories would remove this anomaly. They aren’t trying to "force" marriage – and I don’t believe that they should even encourage it. But the first step is to stop discouraging it, stop paying people to split up, stop messing with the natural order of society (and by ‘natural’ I don’t exclude gay or lesbian partnerships – I just mean how people would behave if the government were not trying to pay them to do one thing or another). This is not about moralising. This is about the mountain of research that shows that marriage is the most powerful provider of welfare known to man, the first best and cheapest source of health, wealth and education. Amongst the well-off, it is hugely fashionable to rubbish all this and speak anthropologically about "changing family structures". And, hell, I’ve come this far without a graph, so here’s one to show just how they are changing:

The trend since 2004 has gone upwards and if you strip out immigrants (who are far more given to marriage) then most children born in Britain today are born outside wedlock. Only a generation or two ago, this was a taboo – now it’s the norm. Now, the main determinant factor in life chances is being brought up in a two-parent family. As Pete says, much of this is about love. But it is also about life chances. Research by YouGov recently showed that children brought up in lone parent families are:-

75% more likely to fail at school
70% more likely to be a drug addict
50% more likely to have an alcohol problem
35% more likely to experience unemployment / welfare dependency


Today’s welfare state has for a long time deprived the low-income family of the economic rationale which binds so may familes together (and before you all sniff at that, ask yourselves: how many middle class marriages would survive if the women were guaranteed the husband’s income (or more) without his presence? Or how many men would persist in their not-always-interesting jobs if they could get the same amount not working?) The economics of this are relevant in low income families, the very group where the two-parent family makes the most difference.

Marriage is simply the strongest, most successful basis for that two-parent family. One of the IDS research projects found that almost one in two co-habiting couples in Britain split up before their child’s first birthday. The same is true for just 1 in 12 married couples. And no, no one – not me, not the Tories – is of course not saying that marriage is always and everywhere the right thing to do: if relationships are abusive, for example, then of course divorce is the option. But for most cases, for most families, marriage is best guarantor of the two-parent family which is far and away the best basis for bringing up children. This is not a moral issue, but a simple social one.

About a year ago, I was sent a letter from a reader of my News of the World column saying that he loved his family but had reluctantly decided the best thing he could do for them was to leave them. He had worked out the maths, and put it in the letter: right enough, the benefits his wife could receive if she were a single mother significantly outstripped what he could provide in earning. This was an absolutely heartbreaking letter, showing the kind of barbaric system we have that is prizing loving families apart.

This is what the Tories want to eradicate. This is not about dangling £20 notes in people’s noses, thinking it will lure them down the aisle. This is not, actually, about middle class families for whom the sums of money involved would be an irrelevance. This is about changing the fact that Britain has so many low-income couples who are also faking a divorce, telling the authorities that they are living apart to claim more benefit. Deplorably fraudulent, you might argue, but what kind of debased system do we run in Britain were people are reduced to faking a split-up?

It costs billions upon billions of pounds to pay people to break up. The Tories are simply proposing a system that goes with the grain of human nature – and to stop creating all this expensive poverty which we never were able to afford.

So much of the "broken society" argument comes down to families. Young men who group up without male role models, drifting towards gangs because they find there the authority figure that has been missing from their lives. In America, this debate has mostly been about black families – and much research has been done understanding that promoting marriage is the most efficient form of welfare. In Britain, I fear far more work needs to be done by the Tories, but they do have an excellent case. They just need to spell it out.

UPDATE: Pete responds here.

UPDATE 2: Philip Salter at Adam Smith Institute declares Pete the winner of the efficacy side of the debate saying "£20 per week really won’t make much of a difference." Guys, please click here, look up p17 and p19 and see how much low earners are on in this country – the poorest 10% have disposable income of £87 a week (down from £96 in 2001/02). So  £20 a week = £1,040 a year = kids clothes for a year or the family holiday. You’d be amazed how many people there are for whom this does make a difference.

UPDATE 3 (Pete Hoskin): Yes, Fraser, following your UPDATE 2, I agree that £20 a week can make a huge difference to low-income earners.  But how many of those would marry to qualify for the Tories’ tax break?  Surely not all of them either a) are unmarried, or b) have partners lined up already etc.  In the end, you can’t separate efficacy and morality in this case: a more effective policy, helping more low income earners, would be more moral.


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