We need to stop tax system incentivising dual-income families

BRING back the marriage bar! Hah — that got you reading! OK, I’m not arguing for women to be turfed out of jobs if they getmarried. As we all know, that was what happened to married women in civil service, teaching and banking jobs in Ireland from the 1930s until 1958 for teachers, and 1973 for the rest.

But I am arguing for work to be shared out more fairly. And that was what the marriage bar was about in the first place.

During the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the end of the marriage bar this summer no-one made the point that the bar was about providing for families in an era of unemployment.

If an employed woman was married to an employed man it didn’t look fair to families on one income. Particularly if those families were headed by women.

Single women didn’t think it was fair for them to have to compete for work with married women who had the support of a husband. In the UK, the ban on married women in civil service jobs began in 1921 following a resolution passed by women civil servants. The ban was enforced until 1946.

The single women’s part of the marriage ban story is never told in Ireland because it doesn’t feed the myth of the marriage bar as a male conspiracy. The complexities of a fair distribution of our resources have not been allowed to blur the clean lines of the story.

But the truth is much more interesting. The new Irish Free State actually abolished gender-specific rates of income in the civil service in 1925 and brought in, instead, differing rates for the married and unmarried. Unmarried men found themselves bumped onto what was the former woman’s rate of pay, which must have felt inglorious to say the least.

But maybe they accepted it because they understood that they did not have a family to keep and needed less money. What an idea! The understanding that a person who was supporting a family needed more money than a single person was, in fact, common all over Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. But marriage bars in other countries are never discussed in Ireland because they complicate the idea that Irish women have been uniquely victimised.

The main perpetrators of this victimisation are nearly always the Catholic Church and de Valera. When in fact some trade unions vehemently opposed the opening of certain professions to women.

The Punch and Judy show which has been made of the history of the marriage bar has made it nearly impossible to have a serious discussion in this country — or anywhere else, as far as I know — about the inequality which results when some homes have two breadwinners and some have none. And the difficulty which one-income families have keeping up in a two-income society.

The EU, which ended the marriage bar in this country in 1973, and brought in the right to equal pay for equal work in 1974, as well as laws prohibiting discrimination on grounds of gender of marital status in recruitment (1977) and maternity leave (1981), does not seem to have any game plan for the fair distribution of scarce resources. It seems to have the utopian view that almost every European should have a good job. Which is impossible.

This scary unemployment scenario is the theme of the European Green Foundation’s Point Festival at historic Carnsore, Co. Wexford, which runs this weekend under the heading, “Jobs, Democracy and Europe: the failure of politics?” The speakers will have to admit that the only time in recent history when European unemployment was close to 5% was during the unsustainable decade-long boom from 1997 — which ended in collapse — or face the charge of dishonesty.

In Ireland the unemployment rate went as low as 3.5% in 2000, which changed the lives of thousands for the better and made us a multi-cultural society. But as we now know, this was also a bubble and all bubbles burst. So considering full employment the new normal, as most politicians pretend to do, is dangerous.

We will have to face the reality that there is a limited amount of traditional employment out there, based on the planet’s limited resources. It just isn’t good enough to let people scramble over each other for those jobs, and reward through the tax system the families in which two adults have managed to score two.

No. The penny dropped with me recently so suddenly I could hear the “ping” that our societies should be calibrated for one job per household. I don’t suggest banning married women from working. But I do suggest a gradual programme to stop the tax system incentivising the dual-income family. Along with legislating for the right to a part-time job, so that a couple could share the paid work if that’s what suits them.

If a couple both want to keep working all the hours, let them at it. If they both earn very low incomes, they may have to. But if they earn a high income, tax them highly because, ultimately, they are taking up two jobs and two big chunks of the resources which feed those jobs.

We would need at least 15 years to make this change in the way we see work because so many families have been trapped by Charlie McCreevy’s tax individualisation and the subsequent property boom into needing two incomes. But we can’t go on like this. We won’t have the work. We won’t have the resources. And even when our appalling unemployment statistics come down it won’t be enough to stop huge numbers of people feeling like spare parts.

How unfair is that? It’s not the fault of people on the dole queues if we’ve organised society so that some people hog too much of the work. We’ve got to find ways to end the stigma of unemployment.

One way would be to pay everyone a guaranteed basic income which would substitute most welfare payments. Paid to everyone, it would not stigmatise. It would allow the many people who are prepared to live frugally in order to do the unpaid work they need to do — be it caring or sculpting or coaching the local camogie team — to live with pride and dignity. It would give people breathing space as they tried out new business ideas. It would spring “welfare traps” because people would be free to earn as much more as they liked.

The idea is working in Alaska and is being piloted in Brazil. The Irish Campaign for Basic Income is helping to gather one million signatures as part of the European Basic Income Initiative.

These are radical departures from the usual script about how growth will lead to jobs which will solve all our problems. But with unemployment in the eurozone at 12.1% — a million higher than this time last year — we need to come up with radical ideas or face disaster.

For information on the Point Festival at Carnsore see www.greenfoundationireland.ie

Basic Income Ireland is at www.basicincomeireland.com

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