The Marriage Tax Allowance is an expensive way of harnessing resentment and feelings of superiority

David Cameron's proposed tax break for married couples is an expensive way of saying that some people's lives are better than others.

Marriage is not about church bells and white dresses. It’s not even about love. It’s a public statement and a political act, regardless of whether you stage a five-star blow-out wedding reception or settle for the registry office, two witnesses and a bus ride home.

You don’t have to wear a ring. You don’t have to change your name. You don’t have to swear to honour and obey. In fact, if you’ve been living together before you married, there’s basically nothing you have to do that’s any different to before. If you’re a woman, you can carry on using the title Ms and get precisely the same level of half-hearted derision that you got before. You don’t even need to use the words “husband” and “wife” (although people will then think that in using the word “partner” you’re practising some ill-defined form of deception). Life goes on as it did before. Relationships don’t become harder or more morally edifying. Nevertheless, what you think you’ve got – legal formalisation of a union – and what you’ve actually got – involuntary membership of the Superior Relationships Club – are two different things. You and the rest of your family unit will be co-opted into the next Tory Party Conference speech as statistical proof of “what works”  before the registry ink’s gone dry.

Opposition to same-sex marriage has demonstrated the passion with which certain groups view marriage not just as a personal commitment, but as an endorsement of one very particular type of family unit. Their circular argument (man + woman = marriage because marriage = man + woman) is both mind-numbing and deeply dishonest. Bigoted value judgments shouldn’t hide behind claims to linguistic purity. Yet even those who are not opposed to same-sex marriage can end up privileging an institution which is exclusive and culturally oppressive. The same circularity that governs same-sex marriage opposition governs pro-marriage rhetoric (married people are more likely to stay together because people who are more likely to stay together get married). All the same, it’s got to be worth it for an extra £150 a year, right?

Before we all rush to the altar perhaps the most important thing to remember about David Cameron’s proposed tax breaks for married couples is that they’re not actually for married couples. Transferable tax breaks work for a certain type of married couple, in which one person – ooh, let’s say he’s the man – earns more than the other – hey, she could be the woman, possibly at home with the kids. I’m not suggesting this type of couple is worse than any other, nor that it’s not possible for a couple with a different domestic set-up to still benefit from the proposal. But let’s be honest: this isn’t a benefit for married couples, it’s a message, and an expensive one at that. It says “married couples are better, and especially these ones”. It has little to do with care or need, still less with supporting children. It’s another way of harnessing resentment, disapproval and feelings of superiority. This government might be woeful at managing the economy but they’re masters at manipulating the worst impulses of our lesser selves.

Last week George Osborne announced that lone parents with children aged three or four would be obliged to “prepare for work”. On the face of it it’s confusing. Stay-at-home parents rock as long as they are married to working spouses. Working parents deserve tax breaks as long as they have stay-at-home spouses. Parents who are both earning, married or unmarried, won’t get tax breaks but will get frog-marched into the “hardworking families” category (where you’re allowed to feel bitter, as long as you remember to blame the poor). Single parents, meanwhile, regardless of whether or not they’ve been married – regardless of their beliefs about marriage, and regardless of the consequences they may have otherwise suffered by staying in a damaging relationship – are left to struggle alone. I don’t know, perhaps if the rest of us concentrate hard enough the sheer force of our disapproval will raise up wonder spouses from the mystic reals of 1950s Conservatoria. But then again maybe we shouldn’t try too hard. After all, who would we be able to feel superior to then?

Now find out why Eleanor Margolis wants "a gigantic, champagne-drenched, public celebration of same-sex love".


Not everyone's marriage looks like this. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.