If life were as simple as right-wing think-tanks appear to
believe, all governments would have to do is slash benefits and cut
taxes – then watch “feckless” families sink below the water
The Centre for Policy Studies has published a report by economics
professor Robert Rowthorn and analyst Jill Kirby which shows how a
couple with two children on one average salary of £24,000 pay
£5,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits.
As a result, the average family (at the cut-off point for the child
element of the child tax credit which would boost income) has
£55.71 to spend on each member of the household, only £1
more than the £54 the single parent mother receives per head
for her family. If the couple split up, and the husband avoids
maintenance, their joint income increases by more than two-thirds
to £369 – because of tax changes.
The report’s authors conclude that the welfare system is turning
Britain into the single-parent capital of the world. It also
provides couples with a powerful financial incentive to break up.
As if that’s how human nature operates.
First, as an aside, it’s iniquitous that tax credits are used to
subsidise employers who pay disgracefully low rates. Second,
teenage pregnancy is a complex issue impossible to reduce to the
single factor of cash.
The reasons for the UK’s high rate of teenage pregnancy are well
known (although clearly not to Rowthorn and Kirby). Among them are
rotten schools; inadequate family support; abysmal sex education;
and low aspirations. Boost a young woman’s confidence, invest in
sustained support and the change is apparent.
Likewise, a minority of couples may split up to boost their income
– but Mr and Mrs Average, unlike a single young mother – often also
have a mortgage. If they separate, their biggest asset is split and
the far costlier process of maintaining two households begins, so
the “advantages” rapidly melt away. Ask most adults what
constitutes a financially adequate family life and they will not
give the answer that Kirby and Rowthorn imply: divorce and the
The statistic that ought to matter is the one that tells us one
third of single parents and 5 per cent of couples with children
live on less than £130 a week. Cutting benefits, as this
report proposes, is madness. It is rooted in a long-established,
unthinking and punitive strain in society which accuses those who
have next to nothing of “loving” the life they lead.