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What does Ed Balls have against marriage?

14 March 2014

Ed Balls has announced today that he’d scrap even the tiny tax break that George Osborne is planning to offer next year, thus drawing another dividing line with the Tories. Cameron’s proposed tax relief is not about promoting marriage, or favouring any lifestyle over another. He wants to make the government more marriage-neutral. That means eroding the bias against marriage, which is one of the most pernicious poverty traps in the British today.

When I was writing for the News of the World, I was contacted by a reader who said that he loved his family, but had concluded they’d be (financially) a lot better off without him. He sent the calculations, and they were all correct. His decision to marry the mother of his children had left them significantly worse-off than they would be if she was a single mother (ie, married to the state) with her housing costs paid, on top of other benefits. It was a heartbreaking case, and an example of the damage that wrong-headed government policy can unwittingly inflict on family life for the low-paid. This is what the Labour never quite grasped: a marriage tax break is not about bribing anyone down the aisle. It’s about going a bit easier on lower-income couples who want to bring up their children inside a marriage.

In decades of welfare advances, nothing has replicated the power of the family. It’s the first, best and cheapest source of health, wealth and education. Balls may calculate that marriage is more popular with the rich than the poor, so a marriage tax break may be a sop to the middle classes. But part of the reason is that, for those on the breadline, the system is stacked against married couples. It incentivises mothers to pretend that they’re single. The below graph shows one inequality that very few care about: the inequality of access to two parents:-