Scientists claim that being married is good for your health, particularly for men, who enjoy a range of better health outcomes through marriage. While marriage brings with it health benefits, for families on the breadline getting wed is quickly going out of fashion. Barely a third of couples on the lowest incomes are married, compared to almost three out of four couples in the top income brackets. This hasn’t always been the case, as Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, has found. He has been charting the marriage gap for years and says ‘a substantial marriage gap has opened up’ since the 1970s.
There will be many reasons why low-income couples will choose not to get hitched compared to their better off peers,but one reason that researchers return to time and again is the so called ‘couple penalty’ – where, according to advocates, it pays more to live apart than it does together. Ten years ago,researchers found there were up to 240,000 couples with children who were ‘pretending to live apart’. It is not hard to imagine there are many more.
Put simply the problem is created by a mis-match between the way the state calculates welfare entitlement and taxes income. A low income couple will receive less than two individuals in the same financial position, as (most likely) Universal Credit is reduced based on household income but tax is paid by each individual, producing quirks that disincentivises couples living together or marrying.
We can be sure this matters. When it comes to living in poverty, being in a couple is a big factor and being married is the best indication of a couple sticking together. If the state is actively discouraging couples from getting together and sticking together then this is something we need to take much more seriously, but it is unlikely to come up in a Budget anytime soon. Even Conservative politicians have stopped talking about the couple penalty now.
The last time any serious number crunching was done on this issue was in 2010 – before Universal Credit reshaped the welfare system. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that almost all couples with children faced some sort of penalty, averaging over £4,000 a year.
More recently, in a 2022 report, the Policy Exchange think tank criticised government policy for ‘subsidising people to live apart’. They found that minimum wage couples stood to lose a quarter of their income by living together instead of separately and up to £7,000 a year.
The Cameron–era Marriage Allowance, which gives married couples a rebate on their tax bill, might be the hero of our story, but at just a little over £250 a year it does little to redress the balance. It will almost certainly be scrapped under a Labour government. It was never meant to be this way;successive Conservative manifestos promised to abolish couple penalties in the welfare system but they stubbornly remain.
Universal Credit is all but rolled out now, and with it the welfare state has been transformed in its image. At the very least the current government could look into this issue with all its analytical might and provide an objective analysis. We should be brave enough to ask if this social policy experiment has made it more or less likely that couples on low incomes will stick together.
The creation of new welfare consuming households has an enormous price tag. More than £23 billion is reckoned to beadded to the welfare bill every year to because couples split up and come to the state asking for help. Despite the poverty risk the government has no plans in place to intervene to prevent families from breaking up beyond warm words.
A long, hard look at this issue might finally provide some evidence for increasing the Marriage Allowance so it canfinally do some good. Any suggestion of spending more onprodding couples to get married might be politically unfeasible now but we shouldn’t disregard ideas simply because we think they might not win votes in the short-term.
Rishi Sunak has promised not to shy away from talking about the family but it seems marriage is still an unspeakable taboo. As long as it is it is likely to remain a middle-class perk, something we should be much more angry about.
There are signs the political class is beginning to wake up to this. In a remarkable change to the normal behaviour of the Westminster class, the Children’s Commissioner recently gave a speech at a pro–marriage rally held in Parliament. She’s the first ever holder of that office to take a keen interest in marriage. Times they are a-changin’.
Considering how woefully anti-marriage our welfare system is it is a surprise any low–earning couples get married at all.We need to be brave enough to recognise that the state is far from neutral on the family, as many would believe; when it comes to handing out benefits it is anti-marriage and it ends up paying the price in the end.
Frank Young works for a Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity.