Ah, yes, a regular feature at Conservative Party Conference: a prominent Conservative politician reassures the grassroots that the Party will eventually, sometime in the future, restore a tax break for married couples. This year it’s Iain Duncan Smith, yet again. We hear that our broken society will be repaired by recognising marriage in the tax system. Nonsense.
First things first, the marriage rate has declined but most indicators of social progress – education, health, poverty – have improved in recent decades. Yes, there are still some real problems in a handful of communities, but to suggest we have a broken society as a result of the decline of two-parent households is palpably not true.
Turning to the effect of marriage, it is the case that children with married parents tend to have better educational and social outcomes. But the best available evidence suggests that marriage itself doesn’t cause these better results.
Rather, it’s the other way around. Those with higher incomes and educational attainment are more likely to marry. These characteristics could be the real reason for their children, on average, doing better. A recent paper by the Institute of Fiscal Studies supports this. If you compare a married and cohabiting couple with the same education levels, socio-economic status and own childhood family structure, there is no significant difference between how their children develop.
Think about it: what social conservatives are actually saying is that the act of marriage is somehow special. This is absurd. God doesn’t come and sprinkle special dust over people which suddenly makes them better parents overnight. What really makes married couples effective parents is that they have a more stable relationship – that’s probably why they’re getting married in the first place – are better educated, and tend to have higher incomes.
Even if marriage did improve outcomes, the marriage tax break on any affordable scale would make very little difference the number of marriages. After all, we had a marriage tax break in the 1980s and 1990s: but numbers plummeted. Besides, do we really want to spend public money encouraging the kind of marriages that happen for financial reasons?
But, wait, David Cameron says it’s all about signalling: “This is more about the message than the money”. So it’s about reminding people how great marriage is. The problem is that most people already know this. Surveys suggest that the overwhelming majority of under-35s want to get married one day. The most common form of adult partnership is still marriage.
In the 2010 Conservative Manifesto, Cameron outlined the specifics: he pledged to restore a transferable tax allowance for married couples. A sole basic-rate earner in a couple with dependent children could benefit from part of their non-working partner’s tax allowance – giving them an extra £150 a year.
But only a minority of married couples would benefit from this. Over in the twenty-first century, most married couples are both working. In fact, it would direct more public funding towards pensioners where only one of the couple has a pension or other income. Crucial public funding would yet again be directed towards the old when the young need it more.
What’s more, it won’t help the families who really need the support either. The very poorest families, whose children are more likely to have poorer life chances, are those where both parents are not working or earn very little. If no one is working, or earns below the personal tax allowance, you don’t pay tax, so you can’t get a tax break.
Marriage is a fantastic institution. We should celebrate people achieving their aspiration to find someone they love and declare publicly their commitment to each other. But fiscal policy should stay out of it, not least because marriage doesn’t produce better parents to stop troublesome kids.
Better parenting really comes from higher education and income levels, not from forcing people down the aisle, or bribing mothers to stay at home. So we need improved work incentives for parents and enhanced educational opportunities for more disadvantaged young people. Luckily, we have a public service that can help achieve both: affordable, high-quality childcare. But childcare costs are rising and public support falling.
Forget marriage tax breaks: Government should deploy its limited resources in supporting more children access such vital pre-school education. Then it really will stand a chance of thwarting the dysfunction that stubbornly persists in pockets of our society.