Of many things that annoy me about Tory plans to introduce a Marriage Tax Allowance, one minor irritation is that my partner and I, who’ve been together for thirteen years, wouldn’t even benefit from it. To be fair, I’m not sure I even want to benefit from a policy with which I so wholeheartedly disagree, but if it’s going to happen anyhow … Well, that’s a moot point anyhow. Married or not, we’d gain nothing. We’re both in paid employment so our respective tax allowances are spoken for.
This morning, however, something crossed my mind. I might lose my job! In fact, for reasons I can’t go into, there’s a distinct possibility that I will lose my job! And if I do lose my job, providing we’ve tied the knot, then it’s Tax Allowance a-go-go! Way-hey! Thank you kindly, Mr Cameron!
To be fair, there’s not a huge amount of cash in it — up to £304 a year? — but if I’m not going to have a job anyhow, it’s better than sod all. Even if I end up on Workfare, doing a job that in the past I’d have done for an actual wage, I can at least tell myself that I’m being “paid” to be a wife. Or so I thought.
Unfortunately, the flaw in this thinking soon became apparent to me. Even if as a couple we prove eligible, the money wouldn’t go to me. It would appear as a bonus in my partner’s monthly wage packet and while I trust him not to fritter it all on Lego Minifigures and Haribo, the broader principle of this — husbands being rewarded for having wives who don’t earn — rankles.
Sure, there will be same-sex couples or heterosexual couples in which the husband doesn’t earn who benefit from the tax breaks. Nonetheless, I don’t believe this allowance would ever have been proposed were it not for the highly gendered beliefs and effects that underpin it.
As George Eaton outlines in the New Statesman, most married couples won’t actually benefit from the tax allowance. Even so, our Prime Minister writes as though a tax break is just waiting for anyone who — ah! — believes in love:
The £1000 marriage tax allowance will apply to straight and gay couples, as well as civil partners. Love is love, commitment is commitment.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) September 27, 2013
How nice! Of course, this is utterly disingenuous and we’re right to feel angry on behalf of all the unmarried, married and formerly married people this smug, self-serving package excludes. Harriet Harman’s response exposes just one of the flaws:
Marriage man’s tax allowance will go to man on his 3rd wife but not to first 2 wives looking after his children!
— Harriet Harman (@HarrietHarman) September 28, 2013
You could argue that there’s still an irritating nod towards traditional morality in Harman’s response (let’s focus on the poor abandoned wife rather than the single mother who’s never been wed). However, Harman is right to highlight the gendered nature of this supposedly gender-neutral gesture. Even the Daily Mail admits (gleefully, one might say) that “stay-at-home mothers and women who work part-time will be the main winners”. When the Tories say “married couples” they don’t literally mean “married couples”. They mean “men and their stay-at-home wives” (if some same-sex couples get a bonus, too, that’s just collateral damage suffered by their side in a much bigger culture war).
I don’t think there is anything wrong with a couple deciding one person will stay at home while the other earns. I think there is something seriously wrong with seeking to endorse this as an ideal to which everyone should aspire. Not all marriages and partnerships are good marriages. Not every partner who is an earner is willing to respect the contributions of his or her non-earning partner. Not every partner is willing to share. Financial abuse within relationships is a real and damaging, and it frequently accompanies the physical and psychological variety. Moreover, we should consider this alongside the following well-known facts:
- In heterosexual couples, a non-earner is most likely to be the woman.
- In heterosexual couples, married men tend to earn more than single men while married women tend to earn less than single women.
- In heterosexual couples, the person most likely to initiate divorce proceedings is the woman.
I’m tempted to add to this the fact that in heterosexual couples, the person most likely to be killed by the other person is the woman (we all know this, yet it’s considered too extreme to mention in polite society). Either way, what I mean to say is not that marriage is inherently damaging to all heterosexual women, but that a society in which there is significant political endorsement of marriage and an increased amount of social pressure to marry can be damaging to many heterosexual women. This isn’t about commitment, it’s about power.
If Married Couples Tax allowance is not about benefiting all married couples — which we know it doesn’t — what is it really for? Yes, it’s a gesture to appeal to traditional Tory voters but where exactly does this appeal lie? I think it’s in a deeply regressive, patriarchal belief system, one which benefits far fewer people than it harms. Coalition reforms to Child Benefit already mean that some stay-at-home mothers have lost the only independent income they had. A little more money in the pockets of husbands (albeit not the same husbands, but those who earn less) seems frankly insulting in this context. Far worse, however, is the added pressure on those people in married relationships who are unhappy and/or exploited. For them, people for whom “love is love” is far too simplistic a reading of relationships, Cameron’s gesture just brings additional shame.
I think we need to talk more openly about the gender-based assumptions and desires that lie behind the Marriage Tax Allowance. It’s not enough to say that the sexism’s not there in writing. It’s there in theory and in practice and it will have an impact on people’s lives.