Married Couple’s Tax Allowance: Let’s talk about sexism

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:

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:

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:

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.

9 thoughts on “Married Couple’s Tax Allowance: Let’s talk about sexism

    1. Unfortunately it is born out by the data in some instances, although Sarah misses out tobacco. Women are actually much more likely to spend the money on the kids as well as themselves and things which benefit the whole family.

      (Most recent that I can think of is in central America looking at evaluating some of the transfer programmes there, but it also happens in older European data – you could argue that we’ve moved to a more equal state of affairs since then but I haven’t seen data either way on that).

      1. Hi Geeky. I think you need to be careful about such ‘data’ and how it is used. The fact that a person purchases something (because that is the division of responsibility within a family) does not equate to that person being more child-focused in their spending. Neither should we ignore the fact that most of these studies are funded and researched by standpoint academics whose purpose is to transfer money ‘from the wallet to the purse’. Financial independence was a key aim of second wave feminists and it spawned a huge academic industry to support it. Women’s financial independence is a perfectly laudable aim, but to justify it by suggesting that fathers spend money on themselves and not there family, is shameful. Let’s not forget that British men work some of the longest hours in the industrial world and that is spent across the family. As someone who works very closely with families and works on policy around families, I find Sarah Ditum’s comments as juvenile as I would someone who claimed that women spend all the household income on bingo, vodka and make up. It’s just silly.

        1. I’m not talking about individual spending on certain items, on which I take your point, but changes in household spending depending on who is receiving the money. There are several economic models which look at household decision making over types of work (paid, unpaid in the home) and consumption/purchases. One idea is the “unitary model” in which it doesn’t matter who brings in the money, the household makes a decision effectively as a single unit based on the income available. However other models of all varieties place importance on who brings in that money. Time and again empirical research has refuted the unitary model, and a common way of doing this is by looking at cash transfers to women. Sometimes these are new benefits for the family, sometimes (like for UK child benefit) you’re looking at a change in allocation from father to mother. Many of these instances find not only that consumption patterns are affected by who receives these transfers, but also that spending on children increases if mothers receive the transfers.

  1. “husbands being rewarded for having wives who don’t earn — rankles” << This. Davey-babes wants to go back to the 50s. Such a sunny time for women. Frightening.

    1. What is the *deal* with politicians right now?? Here in the U.S. most of them appear to be trying their very, very hardest to head back to the ’50s. It’s an awfully scary time!

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