Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue is traditionally the key to a successful marriage. The Conservatives appear to have decided that this is indeed true blue territory, with Michael Gove’s recent speech to the IPPR stressing the importance of personal relationships, and reiterating previous calls for a reintroduction of the married couple’s tax allowance as part of an agenda to address poverty. Much of this could be seen as borrowed from the Bush administration’s aggressive promotion of marriage policy as part of a ‘compassionate conservatism’ agenda. There’s interesting work being done in the US about how to best to bolster relationships both between parents, and between parents and their children, although it has yet to be evaluated. But there’s no evidence that the ‘old’ part of this agenda, a tax break for married couples, will, or has, done anything to achieve the more harmonious family relationships Gove calls for.
Economic theory predicts that penalties or incentives for marriage should drive people’s decisions about whether or not to wed. But as the currently fashionable behavioural economics literature suggests, people don’t always act straightforwardly in accordance with the theories, and evidence from real life on this is harder to find. The phasing out of the married couple’s tax credit under both Conservative and Labour governments does not appear to have been accompanied by a significant upward spike in divorce rates. It’s also questionable whether if it did have an impact, this would really be desirable. If what we want to promote is positive relationships and healthy marriages, offering what is essentially a bribe for walking up the aisle may not be the best approach.
The US is currently experimenting with a range of programmes focusing on marriage education, under its ‘Supporting healthy marriage’ demonstration project. These focus not on tax incentives, but on skill building for relationships. But the fact is that these programmes are so new, it’s impossible to tell yet whether they will have any impact on marriage rates, let alone on poverty. As a brief from the Family Policy Strengthening Center puts it, ‘the bottom line is that nobody knows’ whether these policies will actually work to increase family economic stability.
One approach that perhaps does have some lessons for those concerned with promoting family stability and tackling poverty was that taken by the Minnesota Family Investment Program. This found that raising incomes for families in work by allowing them to keep more of their earnings led to significant decreases in family breakups, with the researchers suggesting that increased income was leading to decreased stress and conflict. The relationship between income and marriage is clearly complex. But it’s possible that a focus on tackling poverty may be a better bet than direct investment in marriage promotion. And with limited resources, an approach that focuses on all families, not just those where parents are married, seems more likely to promote the positive relationships across society that Gove is aiming for.
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