In many ways economics is the study of incentives. An incentive is any factor (financial or non-financial) that enables or motivates a particular course of action, or counts as a reason for preferring one choice to the alternatives.
In English, Incentives make you want to do something you otherwise wouldn’t want to do. Today let’s talk about an incentive which is in the media at the moment, the oft criticised, proposed marriage tax break.
The plan is essentially an easy one. Cut the costs for people who want to get married via a tax rebate, and it makes sense. There is a lot of evidence to support the claim that marriage is good for society.
As the Telegraph reports
The statistical evidence is overwhelming: children brought up by two parents do much better, on average, than children brought up by just one. They are less likely to drop out of school or end up in prison, and more likely to pay taxes and remain in employment. This is not to deny that single parents do an excellent job and raise children who grow up to contribute much to society. It is simply to point out that across the population as a whole, two-parent families are more likely to achieve that result – and couples who marry are five times more likely to stay together, and provide that positive environment, than those who cohabit without any public commitment.
We all benefit from well-adjusted children, who are ‘polite, well educated and contribute to society’ this is what economics calls an ‘externality’ a benefit by a party that is not directly involved in the transaction. Parents are paying an extra cost which we all benefit from.
Well the first is the claim by Ed Balls that the tax is “trying to socially engineer family life through a tax policy… [it] is hugely expensive and unfair.”. An economist would claim however that “Ahhhh! All taxes change peoples behaviour” and The Working Families Tax Credit increased the benefits available to single mothers who sought employment thus penalising women who stayed home to look after their children or who remained with their husbands.(the latter claim being VERY VERY contentious)
The second claim is that the credits “could stigmatise children” whose parents are not married. Again many feel that this is false by providing tax incentives for marriage it is difficult to see how it would “stigmatise” the children of the unmarried, any more than providing incentives for single parenthood would “stigmatise” those whose parents live together.
There is of course one issue with the above arguments, they all involve children, supporting and subsidising ALL married couples regardless of their parental status, in effect , penalises everyone else. So should the ‘tax break’ be administered to just married couples with children? I don’t know? Of course, nothing will replace a loving, stable, family; interested in their child’s upbringing and this is something that no taxbreak can fix.