Time for a change for Brownite bishops

Philip Booth in the Catholic Herald on welfare policy

From the early 1990s, UK bishops and their agencies have generally been perceived as endorsing a “Brownite” agenda on economic and social policy. “Solidarity” has often been taken to mean support for income transfers to the poor and for centralised, state-controlled, education models.

These approaches have failed to promote equality and solidarity and are not in accordance with the best traditions of Catholic social teaching. This message comes not only from those who believe in free markets and voluntary association as the best basis for prosperity and wellbeing - distributists and thoughtful contributors to the debate from the left are also arguing for new approaches. In doing so, they echo concerns of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II about welfare dependency.

This year, the state will spend over 50% of national income: in other words, the state will spend more than the citizen. Government non-defence expenditure has grown – almost without pause - yet poverty is more entrenched than ever amongst some groups. When is the old bureaucratic model of solving poverty with income transfers going to work? When the state spends 52% or 54% of national income? Perhaps, more realistically, it is doomed to fail.

In the field of education, the penny seems to be dropping. At the next election, the Conservatives and possibly the Liberal Democrats will be proposing reforms to education that will take us a little closer to some continental countries and a limited number of US states where the parent is sovereign. Not only are educational outcomes much better in those systems, but they are more equal too. Deliberate attempts – as in the UK – to impose uniformity and equality in education paradoxically lead to less equality in practice. As Bishop McMahon recently pointed out, new models of education are also more compatible with Catholic social teaching, though the details will be important: “free schools” should not simply be free to do as they are told by the government!

Welfare transfers are the next candidate for some serious thinking. Surely the main parties should be brimming with better ways to spend huge government welfare budgets given the abject poverty that remains in the UK. Or, perhaps, they might propose ways of significantly reducing spending, taking less out of the pockets of the poor in taxation and decentralising the provision of welfare. Instead, the only serious proposal on the table is for a transferable tax allowance to help reduce the tax bills of those who are married with children.

Traditionally, our bishops have tended to support additional spending on poor families with children and this has included inadvertently supporting discrimination against couples and in favour of single parents. I hope they are beginning to understand the damage this large-scale spending, these highly bureaucratised welfare systems and systematic discrimination against marriage have caused. To mirror thoughtful contributions from intellectuals from both left and right on these matters, we also have Christians of both major political parties – such as Frank Field and Iain Duncan Smith – articulating concerns about these issues.

Behind many single parent families there are sad cases of death, divorce or desertion. These situations could be the focus of a decentralised welfare system, which need not be especially expensive. However, the blanket discrimination against couple families, together with disincentives to work, in our current tax and welfare system has led to a spiral of poverty, government spending and inequality.

Discrimination against marriage certainly affects behaviour. The evidence suggests that, when marriage is not financially penalised, people generally choose to marry to have children. Children need huge investments of money and time and a couple cooperating intimately together can provide both. But, in Britain today, if people on low incomes do not marry, then the welfare system will replace the income of the missing partner. Three quarters of lone parents receive income supplements from the state compared with only one tenth of couples. Meanwhile, low-income couples are taxed to the hilt, especially when there is only one earner. The unsurprising result is low marriage rates amongst the least well off.

There are many figures that illustrate the discrimination against couples within the tax and benefits system. Just one will suffice. Take a mother and father where the male earns about £20,000 a year and the mother does not work. Living apart, or pretending to live apart, will increase the couples’ net income after taxes and benefits by about two thirds. We end up tying ourselves in knots trying to resolve these problems by better fraud prevention, requiring maintenance from the father, rewarding the mother if she declares who the father is, and so on. But, the bottom line is that dishonesty, being workless and not making the commitment to marry all pay. We are hoping that people will behave like saints whilst dangling the most perverse incentives in front of them to do what is against their best instincts.

The consequences are alarming. The average number of children per single parent family is growing whilst that for couple families falls. Furthermore, the average family size in workless households is greater than that in households where at least one person works. Meanwhile public spending spirals, raising the tax burden on poorer working families, further discouraging them, and encouraging welfare dependency.

The fact is that it is very expensive for the state to take on the role of either child carer or bread provider for the whole of a person’s childhood as often happens with single-parent families. Ending discrimination against married couples – and, for that matter, non-married cohabitees - may set us back on a track where even families on low incomes can be more or less self supporting once again. In the 1960s, at much lower wage levels, poor families with only one working parent could be self supporting because the taxation of poor families was much lower.

Yes, there are difficulties in life such as unemployment, death, disability and so on. And we can argue about the best welfare structure to support people through such events. It is to be hoped that, when Catholic agencies and bishops talk about poverty in the future, they learn the lesson which is slowly being learned with regard to education. We need to look at problems from the bottom up and not from the top down. In particular, we need to ensure that the state does not penalise self-supporting families with limited means. A transferable tax allowance which will reduce the amount of tax that couples pay is one way to achieve that. The Bishops should sit up and take note and urge others to make constructive contributions to this debate.

See also Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy and The War between the State and the Family

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