Rowling goes on to detail the trials of single-motherhood, and portray Cameron as out of touch with the lower-class and ignorant of nontraditional family dynamics.
Yesterday’s Conservative manifesto makes it clear that the Tories aim for less governmental support for the needy, and more input from the “third sector”: charity. It also reiterates the flagship policy so proudly defended by David Cameron last weekend, that of “sticking up for marriage”. To this end, they promise a half-a-billion pound tax break for lower-income married couples, working out at £150 per annum.
I accept that my friends and I might be atypical. Maybe you know people who would legally bind themselves to another human being, for life, for an extra £150 a year? Perhaps you were contemplating leaving a loveless or abusive marriage, but underwent a change of heart on hearing about a possible £150 tax break? Anything is possible; but somehow, I doubt it.
But what is Cameron really saying that’s so controversial?
There are a number of things that bother me about Rowling’s piece. While it’s true that some children suffer because of acrimonious marriages, the overwhelming amount of research suggests that – all other things being equal – kids are substantially better off in stable two-parent households. Asserting that two-parent households are better for children in the aggregate isn’t the same as demonizing single parents. It's simply acknowledging what seems to be the empirical reality. Rowling is wrong to misconstrue Cameron's statements as some sort of crusade to smear single moms.
The central complaint of Cameron's “sticking up for marriage” campaign is that the British welfare system provides a fiscal motive for single-parenthood, while the tax system fails to encourage matrimony in any meaningful way. Since we know that kids from two-parent households perform better – even when controlling for a range of other demographic factors – this makes little sense. Conservatives argue that we need to provide parents with more of an incentive to stay together for their children.
The real question, then, is whether you believe that people actually respond to economic incentives – even if those incentives seem relatively meager. Rowling is very skeptical, primarily because she doesn’t believe couples will stay together for such a trivial amount of money. Afterall, why would any woman base her decision to get married on the how much she would receive in tax breaks?
Of course, this is a pretty silly oversimplification. And whether she knows it or not, Rowling is actually challenging decades of microeconomic research (with broad theoretical underpinnings) that shows people do respond to these kinds of incentives, at least on the margin. Certainly, no one is expecting – or hoping – that an abused wife will remain with her husband so that she can take advantage of a small tax break. But what about a young couple that recently had a child out of wedlock and is wavering on the marriage issue? Or a couple that has lived together for years and never thought it was “worth it” to get married?
What bothers me most about Rowling’s piece is her ignorance of microeconomic theory – an ignorance that I believe is widespread. Microeconomic analysis rests on two primary assumptions: people respond to incentives, and those responses can be measured on the margin. This is the central thesis of books like Freakonomics.
To argue that people won’t respond to a tax incentive because you can’t picture them responding to it strikes me as a pretty weak and ineffectual argument, particularly when you're railing against such a widely-held and widely-supported proposition.
But, then again, Rowling has never been very good at economics.