What if the tax and benefits system already rewards marriage?

If you want the system to incentivise staying together, then relax.

MPs have written to the Chancellor this morning calling for the introduction of a marriage tax allowance. But what if the tax and benefits system already rewards marriage?

This would challenge the idea of the 'couple penalty' - the idea that the tax and benefit system makes it more attractive for families to split up than stay together. It's not mentioned in the MPs' letter, but it's an implicit part of the debate around the issue.

In principle, it sounds like a simple thing to work out: you would just need to calculate whether the system makes people richer if they split up, or not.

The problem is that it's relatively easy to work out how taxes and benefits change if a couple split up - but harder to work out how their cost of living changes. Economies of scale kick in when you live with a partner, and you need to calculate how much cheaper bills, rent and living expenses are under one roof.

The usual way of working out this is using an equivalence scale: a ratio that estimates how much extra family members cost. Most analyses that have suggested a 'couple penalty' exists rely on these scales, and usually an OECD scale drawn up in 1982. These scales generally rely on researchers' assumptions [pdf] about economies of scale and how people live - not, as a rule, actual evidence about how people live. They're not entirely plucked out of the air, but they are not really a meaningful way to assess relative need.

So why not ditch the abstraction, and actually aim to understand what people in the real world need to live on based on a common framework, and then work out the relative cost of living together or apart?

We need not imagine: this June some researchers did just that (report here [pdf]). Analysing what real, live, actual people said they need to live, and then combing through that to work out the precise cost of living, it found a rather different picture. An unemployed couple, for example, would be £62 a week worse off if they split up; if one parent was in work at £9 an hour they would £36 worse off; if both worked, it was £44. The numbers vary by family size and type but as a rule, people are not better off apart.

None of this necessarily makes the idea of marriage tax allowances a bad one, or undermines the aim of supporting families more generally. It does suggest extreme caution though. Policy based on a purely theoretical understanding of how couples manage money is likely to be ineffective policy. Examining the couple penalty is far from easy, but the best analysis we have suggests it doesn't exist on a systematic basis.

What's more, it suggests much of the angst about undermining marriage is misplaced. If you want the system to incentivise staying together, then relax, and rejoice: it already does.

Photograph: Getty Images

Gordon Hector is public affairs manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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The economic and moral case for global open borders

Few politicians are prepared to back a policy of free movement everywhere. Perhaps they should. 

Across the world, borders are being closed, not opened. In the US, Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and to cap the number of refugees at 50,000. In the UK, the Conservative government has reaffirmed its pledge to end free movement after Brexit is concluded. In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept a mandatory share of refugees.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has followed the rightward drift. Its general election manifesto promised to end free movement, and Corbyn recently complained of the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

Among economists, however, a diametrically opposed conversation prevails. They argue that rather than limiting free movement, leaders should expand it: from Europe to the world. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, likens the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk”.

Economists estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent. A doubling of GDP (a $78trn increase) would correspond to 23 years of growth at 3 per cent. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that permitting the entirely free movement of capital would add a mere $65bn.

The moral case for open borders is similarly persuasive. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman writes in his recent book Utopia for Realists: “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.” An unskilled Mexican worker who migrates to the US would raise their pay by around 150 per cent; an unskilled Nigerian by more than 1,000 per cent.

In his epochal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls imagined individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class. It follows, he argued, that they would choose an economic system in which inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the most disadvantaged. The risk of being penalised is too great to do otherwise. By the same logic, one could argue that, ignorant of their fortunes, individuals would favour a world of open borders in which birth does not determine destiny.

Yet beyond Rawls’s “original position”, the real-world obstacles to free movement are immense. Voters worry that migrants will depress their wages, take their jobs, burden the welfare state, increase crime and commit terrorism. The problem is worsened by demagogic politicians who seek to exploit such fears.

But research shows that host countries gain, rather than lose, from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute far more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than merely “taking” jobs, migrants and their children create them (Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, is one example). In the US, newcomers are only a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A Warwick University study of migration flows between 145 countries found that immigration helped to reduce terrorism by promoting economic development.

In a world of open borders, the right to move need not be an unqualified one (the pollster Gallup found that 630 million people – 13 per cent of the global population – would migrate permanently). Under the EU’s free movement system, migrants must prove after three months that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system” – conditions that the UK, ironically, has never applied.

But so radical does the proposal sound that few politicians are prepared to give voice to it. An exception is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016: “Inevitably, in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century, so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.”

At present, in a supposed era of opportunity, only 3 per cent of the global population live outside the country of their birth. As politicians contrive to ensure even fewer are able to do so, the case for free movement must be made anew.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear