Tax before marriage

Mary Dejevsky has a thoughtful-but-wrong piece over at the Indy. She begins by admitting a sneaking sympathy for the intentions of the Conservatives to legislate for tax breaks for married couples, but stops short of full support for such “starry-eyed” proposals:

I doubt that efforts to rebuild the institution as such, will produce more stable families. Might preparatory classes [one of IDS’ new ideas] not turn people off the whole idea? Does marriage make a relationship more stable, or are those who marry predisposed to form stable relationships anyway, which is why they chose to marry? And when you make divorce harder, do you not turn back the clock in the worst possible way – simply prolonging the unhappiness.

Fairy nuff. Quite refreshing to find a sober-headed view of contemporary marriage and relationships co-existing with an honest hankering for past social mores – and no liberal should find anything wrong with people hankering for past social mores (so long as they don’t visit them on us and our transbisexual menages-a-quatre communes, obviously). But she has an alternative suggestion:

…for those squeamish about appearing judgemental, marriage need not come into it. The same effect could be achieved much more simply – by removing the disincentives to any stable relationship that are currently built into the tax and benefits system. Many parents who live together are effectively penalised if they are on a relatively low wage or, if for whatever reason, one or other does not work. It is not just right-wing apocrypha from job-centres that says so. You only have to do the calculations; housing benefit has a particularly deterrent effect to cohabitation.

This is all true so far as it goes, certainly on housing benefit, where the income of the whole household is taken into account. Council tax is another one, insofar as a single person living alone gets a 25% discount which will vanish if another adult moves in, even if they don’t work.

But I don’t think straightforward “levelling” of these benefit criteria so that two people have something closer to twice the entitlement of one person would necessarily act in the wider interests of fairness. Insofar as we accept the principle that we should be taxed, and that we are entitled to benefits when we need them, it must be on the basis that we are taxed according to ability to pay, and are entitled to benefits according to need. Two people’s ability to pay rent is often greater than one person’s. Two people’s needs can be satisfied more economically than one’s. And the financial needs attaching to the upbringing of a child do not dramatically vary according to the number of parents it has – if anything it varies downwards with two parents because the cost of childcare is less of an issue. All this is self-evident through simple household accounting. Of course, living on low wages and housing benefit is just as hard for a couple as it is for a single person, but surely their basic problem is that they’ve got no bloody money, rather than that the tax and benefits system discriminates against them. In fact, it merely fails to discriminate in favour of them.

Dejevksy’s argument is therefore somewhat weasel-tailed – she claims to be opposing discrimination, but on any detailed consideration of the current system vis-a-vis her proposals it’s clear she favours introducing it. Her reasons becomes clearer at the end (my emphasis):

Yes, I know how hard it is for single parents, I know what a terrific job they do, and I accept that the tax and benefits system should be geared, as far as possible, to shielding children from the effects of poverty. But consider this. Almost half of all births are now outside marriage; children in single-parent families are many times more likely to suffer abuse; the number of children taken into care has risen 20 per cent in 10 years. This is what the marriage – or co-habiting – penalty, British-style, has wrought.

I’ve seen (who hasn’t) this argument advanced several times in the right-wing press over the last week, but I find it truly puzzling here. A lump of plasticine stuck on the end of an exquisitely wrought matchstick model. It’s is a truly numbskulled confusion of correlation and causal link, so much so that I can’t quite believe she has done it, and secretly fear I may be missing something. Was I off school when they did the bit about how you can prove that one statistic causes another just by putting them in the same sentence?

It ought to be obvious to everyone, even Tories, that this correlation by itself proves nada. In order to prove that all single-parent families were more likely to abuse their children, you’d have to prove first that child abuse resulted from a factor – stress, for example – that could be traced specifically and solely to the fact of the relationship breakdown. But in fact, there’s no need to involve ourselves in such a nebulous argument, because the converse is far, far more likely: the kind of dysfunction that causes people to abuse children may also cause them to be bad at holding together relationships. Parents who abuse children are more likely to be single, not the other way round. So forcing child abusers – or incentivising them, in the twenty-first century version – to stay in couples is going to do nothing more than paper over some very deep cracks.

This is why the Tories’ policy on marriage and social justice generally has always reminded me of the cargo cults – that strange phenomenon of the postwar period when abandoned airstrips and quartermaster stores littered the remote islands of the world. Like the tribesmen who built air traffic control towers out of coconut leaves and straw and waited for the great metal gods to bring them cargo, the Tories think that by reproducing old rituals – on a grand, national scale – they can induce the factors that originally underlay those rituals.

Once, couples stayed together because morals, prevailing global socio-economics and a more communitarian way of life – to say nothing of the legal difficulties – told against separation. Those same factors also meant that, for example, young men were less likely to have the opportunity to turn to crime. They meant that very bright children born into poor families couldn’t stay at school past the age of 14. And that gay people either never understood their true nature or suppressed it. And yes, they probably also meant that a neighbour would come running if they heard the kind of screams that might result from a child breaking its back. But that doesn’t mean that by slipping couples an extra twenty quid a week to stay married you can resurrect all those outcomes, even supposing you decided that it was on balance desirable.

But you know all this, of course. You know about the immutable laws of space and time and the fact that no precise deployment of atoms can ever occur more than once in the life of this universe. And that trying to command their partial redeployment to your desired recipe is hopeless, not even realistic enough to be considered hubristic. Especially if you’re trying to do it with a tax break, for god’s sake. I just wonder why more people don’t know it. Maybe they don’t watch enough Dr Who.



  1. “the kind of dysfunction that causes people to abuse children may also cause them to be bad at holding together relationships. Parents who abuse children are more likely to be single, not the other way round.”

    This is as much of a bare-faced assumption as you accuse the ‘right-wing press’ of. Nobody said that single parents are likely to abuse children. What IDS said was that children living with a non-biological parent are statistically more likely to suffer abuse. It’s not necessarily – in fact I would suggest not even likely – that their biological parents that are causing the abuse, but the step-parent who’s living with them.

    Having seen this up close in my younger years (not me personally, I would add), I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination to suggest that, as a very general trend, step-parents are more likely to be quicker to anger and make punishments harder than natural parents.

  2. [procrastinating…]

    I’d be the first to suggest that morning assembly in schools be replaced with 15 minutes of children being made to chant “correlation is not causation” until everyone finally understood it, but that doesn’t mean correlation is useless. If, as is claimed (and I don’t know) abuse is statistically more likely in single parent families, then of course that doesn’t translate into “single parents are child abusers” but neither does it mean that those who monitor such things shouldn’t concentrate some of their scrutiny on that sector. It is much as it you were to discover that the majority of road accidents involving children occurred within half a mile of a ‘school’ sign*; you wouldn’t decide you could reduce accidents by removing the signs, not if you were sane, but you might consider installing speed bumps or similar.

    ‘Course, another reason that couples stayed together in the past was that women actually having jobs (beyond washerwoman/alewyf/seamstress – hem hem**/ wise woman) that paid a living wage is a comparatively recent phenomenon. And I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing that we go back to the Good Old Days when men were men and women were property. But when one in three people is affected in some way by divorce (not the same as “one in three marriages ends in divorce” as so often claimed) it does suggest homes are less stable than before.

    Interestingly, one in five people divorcing have divorced before and this proportion has doubled since 1980. So people do increasingly, treat (not, perhaps, view) marriage as more ephemeral than they once did. Is this a bad thing? I think so, but fuck knows why. Old-fashioned, I suppose.

    “Was I off school when they did the bit about how you can prove that one statistic causes another just by putting them in the same sentence?”

    No, you just didn’t do a journalism course, where I believe it’s the second thing you’re taught (the first being “it’s not whether you can prove it’s true, it’s whether anyone else can prove it isn’t”).

    *do they? I’ve made it up.

    **this is a very good pun, but sadly completely unintentional

  3. “This is as much of a bare-faced assumption as you accuse the ‘right-wing press’ of.”

    I don’t think it’s a massive leap at all. What abusers lack, psychologically speaking, is empathy. This also happens to be one of the key qualities associated with successful relationships. Basically, an ability to build a normal empathic relationship with a child is a constraint on abuse that most of us have, and people without empathy don’t have it.

    “Nobody said that single parents are likely to abuse children. What IDS said was that children living with a non-biological parent are statistically more likely to suffer abuse.”

    But what was the point of his making that statement, if not to imply by it that step-parents are more likely to be abusers? By itself his statement is perfectly true. But he is plainly drawing a causal link between the two halves of the statement – because his solution is to arrive at a situation where there are fewer step-parents. He thinks that by doing this he will lower abuse.

    I’m suggesting that’s rubbish because it isn’t *only* marriage that prevents child abuse – in fact, it isn’t marriage at all. Marriage was just one symptom of old social mores. The greater prevention of child abuse (or lesser exposure of it, anyway) was another.

    As for step-parents being quicker to anger, you may well be right, but that’s a long way from actual abuse. A step-parent doesn’t abuse their step-child because they’re a step-parent, they do it because they’re fucked up in some way. Merely preventing them, or discouraging them, from being a step-parent doesn’t make them any less fucked up – it just means they’re off abusing another child to whom they do have access.

    I suppose you could stretch it to say that fucked up people are marginally less likely to abuse their own biological children than they are to abuse someone else’s. But the gain is, frankly, a small one ito expend such gargantuan financial and moral effort on. They’re still fucked-up, and likely child abusers.

    Having said all that I certainly don’t have a problem with IDS or anyone else *encouraging* marriage, if that’s all it is, so long as they don’t do it by penalising single people. My only real problem with his marriage preparatory lessons (assuming I’m not forced to take them!) is a tax-related one – i.e. I don’t want to pay for Tory social engineering any more than I want to pay for Labour social engineering.

  4. “Hem hem”. It’s not often I write LOL, but I think I must here. Is this an echo of Terry Pratchett perchance?

    Your school sign/road accidents analogy is a very good one. At the moment it seems to me the Tories are hell-bent on removing the school sign. I genuinely wonder (in my more sympathetic moments) why this is – when there is plenty of more profound communitarianism they could get stuck into. They’re not as afraid to interfere as we liberals are – so why interfere in some of the dumbest, most superficial ways imaginable?

  5. Hm, I rethink my comment about social engineering (though Tories should be under no illusions that they favour it as much as Labour does). I think pre-marriage therapy could be excused on the basis that it will also incidentally act as therapy-in-general to a minimal level for the individuals concerned – which is something I am happy for the state to pay for. Again, so long as *I* don’t have to undergo it.

    Right, must do some work.

  6. Pratchett – more an homage…

    The reason is that the tories are split between those who are tory by default (libertarian minarchists who agree with O’Rourke’s maxim that “giving money and power to governments is like giving whisk[e]y and car keys to teenage boys”) and paternalists who think that they have Good Victorian Moral Values despite – or perhaps because – they don’t have a scoob what the Victorians got up to. The second lot believe in marriage and the first lot believe in tax breaks. It’s not a terribly long step thence to tax breaks for marriage. I half-suspect the logic, such as it is, gets bolted on afterwards.

  7. I believe that children are most likely to suffer abuse from growing up in households where the parents are conservative, but then my definition of abuse probably varies slightly from IDS’.

    Personally I think social engineering (the process of reasoning out new institutions and institutional formats from first principles) needs to be combined with the evolution of traditional collective consciousness.

    As the franchise spread so society necessarily became less formalised and social structures struggled to keep up with the requirements placed on them – ‘pre-marriage therapy’ was once part of the training given during an engagement as part of the role played by the religious community you needed to belong to in order to get married, but as society has become more open we’ve also become less connected to any single congregation which we could trust to perform this ministry.

    Naturally cracks were going to open up, but who do we now trust to lecture us in the stead of those who talk from the experiences we’ve seen them live through? Why, celebrities of course – let’s get Brad and Angelina or Katie Price and Peter Andre to release a government-sponsored DVD on the subject!

  8. On a completely unrelated topic…

    I notice that the government has now made it illegal to buy sex but not to sell it.

    Leaving aside the problems of what constitutes ‘buying’ sex (I assume they are referring to immediate cash payments) it seems evident to me that a system will swiftly arise to circumvent this similar to those used at university parties, say, to circumvent the licensing laws, or Linden Dollars in Second Life; a prostitute currency, if you will.*

    Might I suggest that those of us currently feeling the pinch of the credit crunch set up as Prostitute Currency Traders? It’s an open market at the moment…

    *Brass’s Brass?

    [Disclaimer: sockpuppet does not endorse abuse. No, he doesn’t. It’s all a joke.]

  9. sockpuppet wrote:

    The second lot believe in marriage and the first lot believe in tax breaks. It’s not a terribly long step thence to tax breaks for marriage. I half-suspect the logic, such as it is, gets bolted on afterwards.

    This is one of the best comments I’ve seen on any blog for a while. Just thought I’d say so! 🙂

  10. It was during the Thatcher years that single parenthood, divorce & crime soared.

    Their consumerist shite, their “culture” in which me & now are all that matter, has been preserved by New Labour & is responsible for the family breakdown they bemoan.

    Just like they whinge about dumbing down but are themselves responsible for it by licking Murdoch’s ring & encouraging a race to the bottom on commercial TV, so they bring into being their own dragons & can’t slay them.

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