The Conservative marriage tax proposals have been heavily criticised for being an ideological policy (e.g. here) and the policy has been hotly debated already. However the policy and the process by which it was developed shows classic problem focused thinking and demonstrates the influence of this approach and how it does not work.
The (non-ideological) argument is that there is an abundance of research which states that marriage has many benefits and tangible positive outcomes for children and families and therefore the state should support it. The Centre for Social Justice released its publication as to the reasons behind the need to support marriage and how to with the tag line ‘Family Policy derived from strong evidence would lead to policies which supported Marriage’. The Conservative Party then accepted these findings and produced a policy which would allow 32% of married couples up to £150 tax break. The absurdity of the policy did not go unnoticed by the party resulting in David Cameron having to state “what matters is the message more than the money” which means in the practical application of the policy it would not fulfill its purpose i.e. to encourage marriage or discourage divorce.
A policy is defined as a course of action adopted and pursued by a government, yet a policy which fails to achieve its intended outcome has no action and is therefore not a policy. So how can it be that a so-called-policy, based on so-called-research has produced a policy which performs no action or that even those who would benefit from it do not want it? (here & here).
The Centre for Social Justice outlines 5 reasons why marriage ‘matters’:
- Marriage brings stability
- Marriage is directly linked to better mental and physical health amongst adults
- Marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse
- Marriage leads to better mental health for children
- Marriage leads to better life outcomes for children
Marriage & Stability
While there is much research which outlines the link between marriage and a low level of relationship breakdown as a comparison to other forms of relationship, there seems to be some fundamental aspects of this debate which has been ignored. While I am not going to go into an in depth assessment of the research which has been used it is worth pointing some issues with it. Some research they use states that there is a relationship between marriage and stability but dig a little deeper and you find that this is actually a relationship only for middle class families. The research actually points towards a clear relationship between social class and family stability rather than marriage and family stability. Moving downward through the class structure, we find a pattern of increasing complexity and discontinuity in family structure and household arrangements. Marriage may well mean economic well-being and stability for middle class families but it does not mean that for everyone.
Better mental and physical health amongst adults
The Centre for Social Justice uses research which states that marriage is directly linked to better mental and physical health amongst adults yet equally there is much evidence that this is not the case for married women. Indeed it outlines that for married women versus single women there’s more depression, less career success and less good health in married women and, until recently, a greater chance of dying a violent death – usually at the hands of the men they love.
Reduces the risk of violence and abuse
The Centre for Social Justice states that marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse with the research citing married women suffering from the least abuse. However, The research used by the Centre for Social Justice cites one study which find that “twenty eight per cent of couples said violence had occurred at some time in their marriage” and another which stated that 18% of married women had suffered a physical assault by a partner or ex-partner. Women’s Aid states that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes which is not dissimilar to the 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 (nearly) married women. It is therefore dubious to state that marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse.
Leads to better mental health for children & leads to better life outcomes for children
These are the same point just presented as 2 individual ones as they separate mental health and drug and alcohol use, which are linked and it is not necessarily possible to distinguish between the two adequately enough, therefore they can be different sides of the same coin. They report that “Children of lone parents are more than twice as likely to suffer mental health problems than children of married couples, and those of co-habiting couples are 75 per cent more likely to have mental health problems than their peers with married parents” while they fail to mention that the report also states that children are
- 4 times more likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) has no qualifications
- Twice as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is not working
- 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is on less than £100 a week (compared to over £600)
- 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is on disability benefit
- 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is in a routine occupational group (as compared to higher professional group)
- Over twice as likely to have mental health problems if they live in social housing (compared to owner occupier)
- 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if they live in a ‘hard pressed’ area (compared to ‘wealthy achievers’ or urban prosperity’)
(See here for report).
Essentially, it states that children are more likely to suffer mental health problems if they have more stress in their lives than children who do not, whether this be from the community, the home, or their parents’ relationship. This is a statement of the obvious and says absolutely nothing about marriage as an institution as many of these factors are inter-related and the reason why the report categorically states that “causal relationships should not be assumed for any of the results presented in this report”.
I find it amazing that I can find no critique of the Centre for Social Justice’s report or the research used, or more importantly how the research has been used to present a picture that marriage provides benefits for all. Once you dig into the research I find it hard to see what they are actually saying. For example, the average age of marriage is currently 36.5 years for men and 33.8 years for women yet the younger the couple are the more likely they are to break up, which is the same for marriage where the earlier in life a marriage is formed, the more likely it is to breakdown. So are we talking about the stability of relationships within marriage or age? Additionally, the rate of cohabitation is highest amongst the younger age groups, resulting in younger women being more likely to give birth outside marriage. So are we talking about the perceived benefits of children being born within a marriage or the age of their parents? Equally, there has been a trend to postpone having a child as women are able to make more deliberate decisions about when to have children. However, the extent that women are able to make choices varies with socio-economic status. Women in social class I and II on average bear their first child at a later age than those in classes IV and V. So are talking about the perceived benefits of children being born within a marriage or the class of their parents? The debate has been skewed by the misrepresentation or omission of research to make a political point and one which failed to mention that “marriage failed to produce these benefits for many working class and poor families”.
The research is based on the experiences of white, middle class families either directly or indirectly and this has then been translated into a national policy for all. The fact that this occurred is the result of breaking a fundamental principle of solution focused politics, and that is to respect the population as worth doing business with. They did not ask people what the problem was because if they had have gone to any local council estate and asked them about their problems I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have said that marriage was a solution. It shows a lack of understanding of the nation’s problems, a lack of understanding of how to deal with them and a lack of understanding of what politics is for. And to top this off, the result was a policy which is recognised by those who invented it that it would not do what they wanted it to do. This is classic problem focused politics and solves nothing.
Thankfully, this was not in the June 2010 budget; let’s hope they do not bring this in.