The Cost of Marriage and Families
Making Families Too Pricey
Discriminatory Government Policies Under Fire
By Father John Flynn
ROME, APRIL 3, 2007 (Zenit) - Marriage and family life in Britain have declined dramatically in recent years and one of the causes is government policy. This is the thesis of Patricia Morgan, in a policy brief entitled: "The War between the State and the Family: How Government Divides and Impoverishes." The study is published by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs.
The number of marriages has fallen notably, while the age at which couples marry has risen and the proportion of births out of wedlock has rocketed from 8% in 1970 to 42%. It is true, Morgan admits, that around one in four women with a child born out of wedlock goes on to marry in the subsequent eight years. But a quarter or more of children now have lone parents, who bear and raise their offspring in one or a series of cohabitations.
In addition, cohabitations in which children are born are much less likely to be converted into marriage, and more likely to dissolve than either marriages or childless cohabitations.
Moreover, Morgan argues that there is a generally upward trend in the proportion of cohabiting relationships that dissolve rather than turn into marriage. And, after they break up, it takes about two years to form another relationship, often another cohabitation.
This decline in marriage is a worrying trend, the study explains, given the important social role of family life. Not only does marriage perform social tasks that are not easily replaced by other institutions, but it is also an important means of bonding fathers with their children. Morgan points out the importance of marriage for men, in terms of connecting them with the community and encouraging personal responsibility.
Single-parent families and divorce also have severe negative effects on children that have been substantiated by numerous studies, Morgan points out. Problems include lower educational results, poorer work prospects and inferior health.
Adults are also better off being married. "Married people are consistently better off in terms of longevity, mental and physical health, and suffer lower levels of violence and addiction," the study argues.
The breakdown in family life has led to a big rise in government welfare spending. Payments related to child support rose from 10 billion pounds ($19.6 billion) per year in 1975 to 22 billion ($43.2 billion) in 2003 (in 2003 prices). No less than two-thirds of this increase was due to the big increase in one-parent families, according to Morgan.
The problem with this is that a disproportionate amount has gone to single-parent households. Two-parent families are, in effect, being economically discouraged through the combination of welfare payments and the tax system. Thus, the government promotes a situation that favors the increase in single-parent families, with the consequent social ill-effects.
"Anti-family activists have expressly sought to undermine any economic, social and legal need and support for marriage by getting any privileges granted to married couples, including tax allowances, withdrawn, and recognition extended to different types of households and relationships," Morgan explains.
In many cases couples with two children would be financially better off if they split up and the mother claimed welfare benefits. For example, if one parent is working full time at the minimum wage, or at average income, the couple is worse off living together than if they were to split up -- to the tune of 260 pounds ($510) per week. Only when joint incomes reach 50,000 pounds ($98,125) a year is there no loss from being a couple.
Thus, a combination of payments in cash and in kind raise the welfare available outside the married state by enough to take away economic reasons for forming a conjugal household.
While the rise of illegitimacy and the retreat from marriage might not simply be due to economics, it would be unwise to ignore the financial factor that forms part of the environment in which people make decisions about relationships and children. In fact, many people, Morgan admits, will have other reasons that could override economic factors in deciding whether to marry. "But it would be foolish to simply assume that people do not change their behavior in response to the costs and benefits of different directions," she observes.
The welfare system encourages lone parenting especially when the earning potential of the father is relatively weak. It does this in three ways, Morgan explains. First, the bias in tax and benefits systems discriminates against couples, particularly single-earner couples. Second, it can encourage single mothers to have children in order to obtain welfare benefits and thus improve their economic situation. Third, the benefits system can bring about labor market conditions that are less conducive to couples making a decision to marry.
Government policy regarding the family in Ireland also came in for criticism in a report just published by the Dublin-based Iona Institute. In a study titled, "Tax Individualization: Time for a Critical Rethink," John Paul Byrne looks at how changes in the tax system made in 1999 favor two-income families.
For example, a one-income married couple with children can pay up to €6,240 ($8,322) more in tax each year than a two-income married couple on the same earnings. The policy adopted makes for a regime where taxation is individual, and the interdependence of family members is ignored.
There is a tax credit available for families where one parent remains at home to care for the children, but it does little to make up for the tax penalty and has not been increased to take into account inflation. "The current taxation system effectively imposes a tax penalty on married one-income couples," the study concludes.
Among the motives behind the changes in the tax system, Byrne argues that the government sought to push women into the work force in order to meet targets set by the European Union. "Whether this is in keeping with the wishes of actual couples," he comments, "is another question."
The family in Spain
Spain is another country where the lack of government support for the family has come under criticism. In January the Institute of Family Politics (Instituto de Política Familiar) published a report on the evolution of the family in Spain.
The institute cited a variety of statistics showing that Spain is at the bottom of the list of European Union countries in terms of government financial aid for families. Against an average of 2.1% of gross domestic product for the European Union spent on the family, Spain dedicates only 0.5%. Italy is another country with lower spending, coming in at about 1% of GDP. Perhaps not coincidentally, families in both Italy and Spain have very few children.
A family with two children receives financial aid of €308 ($411) a month in Germany, but only €49 ($65) in Spain, for example. The report also accused the Spanish government of discriminatory tax policies that penalize families with children.
Benedict XVI recently expressed concern over the state of the family in Europe. His remarks came during in a speech on March 24, to participants of the congress "Values and Perspectives for Tomorrow's Europe -- 50 Years of the Treaty of Rome."
From a demographic perspective, the Pope commented, Europe seems set on a road that could see it bid farewell to history. Naturally, government policies are just one factor among many influencing family life in Europe, but in some countries there is little support for what is one of the foundation stones of society.
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