Cameron’s marriage policy ignores social trends

Today's Daily Mail details a row over the role of marriage. But David Cameron's tax break for couples ignores decades-long social trends.

Today’s Daily Mail details a row between School Secretary Ed Balls and David Cameron over the role of marriage with a front page headline of “Marriage: now it’s war”. The article follows speculation in recent days over whether the Conservatives would stick to their pledge of an expensive tax break for married couples.

The article outlines that:

“[David Cameron] dismissed speculation that the Conservatives might limit their long-standing commitment to support marriage to couples with children, or those on low incomes.”

As Left Foot Forward and others have pointed out, the policy would cost £4.9 billion and would give thirteen times the benefit to the highest earners as to people on lower incomes. The Mail suggest that the Conservatives would develop an unspecified but “less expensive tax break.”

But the policy also belies the changing nature of family structure in the UK. The chart below is taken from from a Gingerbread report called ‘Single parents, equal families’ which is due out next week. It takes data from the Office for National Statistics ‘Social Trends No. 39‘ and shows that the number of households headed by couples with dependent children has fallen from 35 per cent in 1971 to 21 per cent in 2008. The proportion of households with single parents has risen from 3 per cent to 7 per cent over the same period.

The Social Trends data shows that the greatest change is to the proportion of households without children which has risen from 45 per cent in 1971 to 69 per cent in 2008.

As Ed Straw, vice president of relationship support group Relate, wrote in the spring 2009 Fabian Review:

“The simple act of getting more of the unmarried to marry will not cause better parenting en masse and will not cause the outcomes for their children to improve. Life is just a little bit more complicated than that. Marriage signals stability, it does not create it.”

The Conservatives and their proxies are unable to point to evidence that a tax break would reverse this trend.

NB: Ed Straw is also my uncle.

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