Following the abolition of the Married Couples' Tax Allowance, Patricia Morgan analyses the underlying assumptions of the government's family policy
Is there an anti-marriage agenda?
GORDON BROWN'S final abolition of the residual recognition for marriage in the tax system was accompanied by the kind of facile, perverse reasoning that has become a hallmark of Chancellors of both parties on this subject
The upshot is that the Married Coup les' Allowance does not fulfil its purpose and even if it did it would not be a good thing. Brown declares: the MCA "is in fact not restricted to couples" but "paid at the same flat rate to married couples, single parents and unmarried parents living together".
The answer here should be to restrict it to marriage, as it was before lone parents were allowed to receive the same amount as the Additional Personal Allowance in the 1970s.
But no, this would be unfair to lone parents! Or rather, it would unfairly exclude "widows with children and wives who have been deserted". It is as if recognition for marriage were not only discriminatory against "alternative" lifestyles, but means taking the bread out of the mouths of the suffering and virtuous.
Marriage is seen as the problem, and support for it is at the expense of "families with children" and so detrimental to their welfare. when it is marriage that widens the network of support, care, commitment and resources available to children.
So there is going to be another means-tested benefit, or Children's Tax credit, going at the same rate to lone parents and married couples. When the gross wage of one earner in a two-parent family hits the higher tax band, it starts disappearing, but not for a couple who are both earning £30,000. The one earner will not be taxed exactly as a childless bachelor. as he pays 25 per cent more Council Tax for being part of a couple. Lower down the income scale, there will be the Working Families Tax Credit to replace Family Credit. Similarly, this fails to take account of the presence of the second adult in the family, except to reduce help if they earn anything. The government claims that "additional support should be provided... in poorer families on the basis of the identifiable needs of children, not on whether there happens to be one parent or two". Yet, while poverty or living standards are measured in relation to the size and composition of people's households, taxes and benefits — including those meant specifically for the relief of the poor — are not.
The system also penalises two-parent families since they do not qualify for the child care subsidy like lone parents. It takes no account of the cost of rearing a a child at home by one parent, while the other works, while giving extra credit to lone parents who employ another person to care for their children. With public policy seemingly set on punishing marriage, there are tremendous financial inducements for couples to split up or not form the family in the first place and to operate as lone parents and single people.
IL from the start, the married couple themselves adapt the family as a basic economic unit, their situation is particularly problematic. For a man. the provider role is discouraged. The common belief that male responsibility entails financial support for families was put "at the heart of the present crisis in family life" by Harriet Harman, Anna Coote and Patricia Hewitt now at the Treasury in their Family Way in 1990. It was seen as a drag anchor keeping women out of employment,supposedly preventing them from being represented at every occupational level to the same or greater degree than men. As independence of women and children from male provision was the goal, no recognition, it was argued, should be accorded to the mother who cares for children at home when she is part of a couple although subsidies for lone parents' child care will be derived in great part from the taxes of single earner families with dependent children.
The strategy for abolishing marriage or "patriarchal rela tions" has long been clear. One feminist writing more than a decade ago spoke of the idea as unpopular but achievable by undermining "the social and legal need and support for the marriage contract" and how such a move: "...could be achieved by withdrawing the privileges which are currently ex tended to the heterosexual married couple. Such a move would not entail any punitive sanctions but would simply extend legal recognition to different types of households and relationships, and would end such privileges as the unjustified Married Man's Tax Allowance. ....Welfare benefits and tax allowances would also need to be assessed on the basis of individual need or contribution, and not on the basis of family unit..." (Carol Smart, The Ties That Bind, 1984).
All is accomplished. The "reviews of research" recently presented to the Lord Chancellor's Department on "marital breakdown altd.effectivenesS of policies and services intended to
reduce its incidence" detail how marriage cannot, and must not, be saved. Help for married couples through, for example, transferable tax allowances, might "acknowledge dependency in marriage" or be "held to be sustaining a dependent role for women", who do not want support from an "individual man", and which are anyway against the "interests of children whose parents are not married". To make things hotter for couples, one author, feminist Jane Lewis, wants legislation to tackle the sharing of unpaid work at home.
Yet, how is it in the interests of children to penalise marriage and privilege nonmarriage, since the more marriages that break down or do not exist in the first place, the more children are at risk of every disadvantage? Anthony Giddens, the guru of the Third Way so fashionable in New Labour circles, accepts the overwhelming evidence that children raised by lone parents do not do just as well as children raised by both parents.
The answer is the "detraditionalised family" where parenting is quite separate from marriage. In a revamped version of the Sixties dream, the adults have their freewheeling sex lives and relationships based on nothing but pure feeling, while somehow "parenting" the children left along the way. The idea of the "single parent" would disappear since all parents will be free-standing and free-roaming — with unmarried, nonresident fathers as equipped as unmarried mothers with child care, housing and benefits.
But marriage has been generally seen in human societies as a "social good", deserving of strong support because it fosters responsible behaviour in adults as much as it protects child well-being. The benefits for adults, as in matters of health and crime, have public implications. Nonmarriage means more personal, social services for the unattached, who need more, not less, help. A most ludicrous aspect of the critique of marriage is the claim that it impoverishes women and children who would somehow be more prosperous, as well as less oppressed, without it and from people who are always emphasizing the poverty of lone parents!
Given the limits of one person, the state must take over either, or much, of both the care and support of children. Couples with children numerically make up more of the poor than lone parents at any one time, but there is movement upwards with couples, while lone parents tend to accumulate. Individual earnings may have the largest short-run effect on poverty, but they have a small long-term effect compared to marital behaviour. Marriage expands economic possibilities, particularly by giving access to another income stream. It also brings into being a whole series of exchanges involving two groups of relatives and friends on each side, or a personal social security system. It is a risk-reducing institution, where spouses share their economic and social resources and act as a small insurance pool in the face of the unfortunate exigencies and uncertainties of life. This reduces the need for individuals to protect themselves or. usually, have the state to protect them.
The greater the duration of marriage, the greater the benefits. Marriage is related to a more general, less unequal, gain and spread of wealth in society. Married couples save more at the same income level than single people, produce more between themselves, and are more efficient users of resources. The desire to make provision for others fosters saving, and the expectations and requirements of married status are tied up with establishing and maintaining a home and protecting its environs. The effect on forward looking behaviour has profound implications for provision in old age and for older children. Marriage prompts men to increase work effort and earnings, while divorced, separated or nevermarried men are far, far more likely to continue with low or no earnings, and large percentages are unemployed or otherwise economically inactive and likely to be on basic benefits.
Non-marriage not only means less human capital investment and downward mobility for adults, with increasing dependence upon public institutions, but impairs the chances of successive generations. Lone parenthood often means reduced social resources for childrearing, irrespective of the financial position of their mother. This is now finally admitted by Mark Kleinman, writing for the Research Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion: "Family fragmentation is a major cause of poverty, inequality and social exclusion. Its direct effects in terms of reduced income are compounded by the longerterm indirect effects via lowered educational achievement, low self-esteem and low aspirations."
There is much to be lost in the long term, personal and public, when marriage is discouraged by its immediate costs. Programmes that are means tested and favourable towards lone parents will militate against choices which will improve people's situation in the longer term by undermining the remarkable capacity of marriage to improve wellbeing. Policy makers are not so much unaware as uncaring of the stakes when, led by ideologues, they stamp it out.
Dr Patricia Morgan is senior research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs and author of Farewell to the Family.