The message of the marriage tax: two people good, one person bad

A very odd tax break.

David Cameron believes in marriage. So do I, it would be such a weird thing to make up - so I'm not really sure why it needs a tax break to make it flesh.

The idea of a tax break for married couples has had an on-off relationship with the Conservative party over the years. Right now, Tim Lougton, a rebel Tory MP, has pressured David Cameron into bringing forward proposals to give married people £150 in tax breaks -  the "start of something bigger", says Lougton.

"It’s an important message and it’s also the start of something. £150 is a figure that was plucked out of the air as how it might start; the amendment I’ve been putting forward gives the Chancellor maximum flexibility as to how generous he can be," he told the Today programme.

But Nick Clegg slammed the policy - and I have to say I agree with him. Here's the first thing, whether the start of something bigger or not, £150 really is not very much. Not enough to maintain a loveless marriage over. Probably not even enough to stimulate passionate love where there was none. (My research tells me it took £10,000 a year for Elizabeth Bennet, and that's before inflation). No, the point is, as Cameron said later, it's symbolic. It's an "important message" from the Conservative party, and that message is: two people good, one person bad.

But we know this already. Everyone knows this. Even films know this - it's the key indicator of whether you're watching something arty and highbrow (sad lonely person at end) or something by Richard Curtis (Hugh Grant gets married). This is why people stay in relationships when they're not really sure they're enjoying it any more, or when they're suffering from domestic violence (2 women a week are killed this way).

It's like the Conservative party have become advocates for a 365 day Valentine's day.  Which is great, if you're married, but then it's already great if you're married.

Here's the wider point: we don't need to provide extra motivation for things we are already motivated to do. Policy doesn't always have to be about psychology. Sometimes it should be about support.

The Right often argue that their values are far more in line with our instincts. They're correct - and that's exactly why we need the Left.

David Cameron approves this cake. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Getty
Show Hide image

In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”