LONDON, MAY 14, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Groups in both the United Kingdom and the United States have recently called on their governments to change welfare and tax policies to give greater support to married couples and their families.
In January the UK’s Center for Policy Studies published a booklet entitled, “The Price of Parenthood.” Authored by policy analyst Jill Kirby the foreword explained the urgency of policy changes by pointing out that soon the UK will be “the lone-parent capital of the Western world.”
Kirby set out the details of how the welfare system encourages single-parent households. A two-parent, one earner family on average income, with a mortgage and two children is just one pound a week per head better off than a single-parent household entirely dependent on the state. The couple pays over 5,000 pounds ($9,360) a year more in tax than they receive in benefits. If they break up, however, the two households can receive 7,000 ($13,000) pounds more in benefits than they pay in tax.
According to the data set out in the booklet, in the last 25 years the number of children living in single-parent households has more than doubled, to 3.2 million. Half of all single mothers have never married and nearly half are unemployed.
Kirby noted that when it came to power in 1997, the Labor government set out to reduce child poverty and reduce the gap between rich and poor. Part of that effort has involved substantially increasing government financial support for households with children. One estimate calculates that by 2003 government spending on child-related support had increased by 52%, after inflation, since 1997, to a total of around 22 billion pounds ($41 billon).
Kirby points out that, at the same time, the proportion of children living in lone-parent households, the principal beneficiaries of welfare payments, has continued to grow, rising from 21% in 1996 to the current level of 27%.
Welfare system questioned
It should be no surprise, adds Kirby, that single-parent households are in need of welfare support. Nevertheless, she asked if this is fair to parents in a married household, who as taxpayers support these payments, while at the same time they are under financial pressure to provide for their own family needs.
The question also arises as to whether the subsidies are actually entrenching poverty, by encouraging dependency. For a start, if a single mother marries the father of her child she will be penalized through the loss of welfare benefits. In addition, for those teenagers who don’t wish to enter the workforce, the decision to be a single mother on benefits can be a viable financial option.
And, while the welfare system tries to help poor single parents, it does much less to help poor couples, argues Kirby. The British government, she continued, in practice not only discourages the formation of families in the first place, but it also fails those children whose parents are struggling to maintain an intact home on a low income.
At the same time the financial situation of the average middle class married couple has deteriorated. Substantial rises in home prices, bringing with them increased mortgage costs, lock families into the need to have both partners working. This situation encourages postponement of marriage, and also parenthood.
In the United States, Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, testified before Congress Feb. 10 in favor of welfare reforms that would promote marriage.
In a presentation before members of the Sub-committee on Human Resources Of the Committee on Ways and Means of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rector observed that the erosion of marriage over the last few decades, “lies at the heart of many of the social problems with which the government currently grapples.”
For example, almost 80% of long-term child poverty occurs in broken or never-married families. And each year the government spends over $200 billion on aid to families with children, three-quarters of which is spent on single-parent households.
Today, nearly one-third of all American children are born outside marriage, Rector noted. When the effects of divorce are taken into account, more than half of the children in the United States will spend all or part of their childhood in never-formed or broken families.
Children raised without the presence of a father are more likely to suffer a range of emotional and behavioral problems. “The beneficial effects of marriage on individuals and society are beyond reasonable dispute, and there is a broad and growing consensus that government policy should promote rather than discourage healthy marriage,” said Rector.
The representative of the Heritage Foundation argued in favor of a pilot program proposed by President George W. Bush to promote stable marriages. If approved initial funding for this initiative would be around $300 million a year.
Rector observed that some argue against the proposal on the grounds that the government should not interfere in private decisions concerning marriage. But, the welfare system already “intervenes” — against marriage — by providing substantial financial penalties when low income couples do marry, he pointed out.
He explained that the welfare system is currently composed of more than 70 means-tested aid programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to low-income persons. In a means-tested program, benefits are reduced as non-welfare income rises. As a consequence a mother will receive greater benefits if she remains single than she would if she were married to a working husband.
Eliminating this anti-marriage bias would be very costly, so the pilot program aims at strengthening marriages by means of programs that focus on education and training in skills that can help married couples in their relationships. A selective reduction of some of the financial penalties in the welfare programs is also a part of the project.
Incentives to single parenthood
Concern over the issue of welfare and tax policies and their impact on families is also growing in other countries. A commentary on the situation in Ireland was published in the UK’s Sunday Times Feb. 6. Written by Brenda Power, the article pointed out that since the introduction in 1973 of an allowance for single parents, single parenthood in Ireland has skyrocketed, from less than 3,000 in the year of its introduction to the current level of almost 100,000.
The decision to introduce the allowance was well-intentioned, noted Power. But, she continued:
“There is increasing support for the view that the lone parent’s allowance scheme, along with all the other benefits and concessions available, have had the effect of at best normalizing, and at worst giving an incentive to, single parenthood.”
Power cited a speech by Edward Walsh, a retired professor from Limerick University, who contends that a single mother of two children, in a position to claim all the allowances and benefits that may come her way, could rely on an income of up to 25,000 euros ($32,000) a year from the state.
And in Canada March 7, Bishop Pierre Morissette, head of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, wrote a letter to the federal government minister for Social Development, Ken Dryden, asking for more help for families.
Bishop Morissette pointed out that families need more financial support if they are to care for their own children at home. He also pointed out that “as a society, we must recognize the great personal and social value of the work of a parent who chooses to stay at home and raise children.” An opinion no doubt echoed by many parents who are looking for greater recognition of their role.