Free and Single?

Its forecast that by 2020, 40% of UK households will be home to a singleton. But being single is not a cheap option. According to surveys, after you factor in all the discounts and cost savings that couples enjoy (shared utility bills, reduced insurance, better holiday rates and BOGOF supermarket deals) it turns out that two really can live as cheaply as one. The burdens of the singles do not stop there. Healthcare and education, between them, consume more than half of government expenditure, but only a fraction of that spending is of benefit to adult singles. The winners from this distribution are the families with children. These families win again and again. Parents enjoy time away from work which their childless peers do not. Singles also tend to work longer hours on average, as they have fewer excuses to leave work to others. However, somebody needs to do the graft that makes the money that keeps each business running. If earnings are low, families benefit from tax credits to help pay for the children. And even without children, there are a string of tax advantages available to couples but not singles. How did singles end up in this awful situation?

Part of the reason is societal, and part of the reason is economic. For obvious reasons, younger people are more likely to be single, and typically younger adults are given the worst deal by society. They work, they contribute, but they are expected to pay their dues and work their way up. Singletons have disposable income and a predisposition to dispose of it, especially in the search for a mate. That makes them easy targets for commercial exploitation. In addition, if the singles end up working longer hours, then they are easy prey for supposedly time-saving products and services that would not be needed if they had more time to begin with.

Another reason is psychological. Most singles will think of being single as only a temporary phase. There is a natural anticipation that people “settle down”, and end up pairing off. It therefore makes little sense for the singleton to fight the advantages given to couples. Instead, they can anticipate those advantages when they too find a mate. However, the simplistic division between younger single people and older married people is disintegrating. People do keep getting married – but many are getting divorced not long after. Fewer and fewer fit into the simple pattern of the nuclear family, where adults bear kids and where kids grow up, move out, find partners and start their own family. Instead, we see now see many examples of every permutation of single, married, separated and remarried couples, both with and without kids from current and former relationships. So whilst the ideal of finding ‘the one’ continues to exist to some extent, like white weddings, the symbols of lifelong monogamous relationships now mean more than the meanings they used to represent.

If things were not bad enough for the singleton, it seems the state is determined to marginalize them even further. Financial crisis aside, nobody who listens to a Gordon Brown in recent years will have failed to notice his obsessive incantation of families and children. Which is all very well and good, but does tend to make you wonder if he believes he is also there to serve the interests of everyone else. In fact, it is not clear if he even understands that they is anyone else. In the 10p tax rate bungle, the principle victims were low-paid single workers, who were going to suffer higher tax bills in order to pay for tax concessions enjoyed by others. Yet this is how Brown half-apologized for the fiasco in his Labour Party conference speech:

And where I’ve made mistakes I’ll put my hand up and try to put them right

So what happened with 10p, it stung me because it really hurt that suddenly people felt I wasn’t on the side of people on middle and modest incomes – because on the side of hard-working families is the only place I’ve ever wanted to be

Excuse me? What about hard-working people who are not in families? Is Brown not on their ‘side’? What is the opposing ‘side’ to families if not single people? And why is the 10p issue, which was about punishing the single worker most of all, being conflated with the interests of the group who Brown was trying to benefit? Brown was guilty of robbing singleton Peter to pay the family of Paul.

Our aspirations sometimes do not change as quickly as the world around us. Little boys will want to drive fast racing cars and police cars, even though the environment says we should slow down the burning of fossil fuels. Many are still training or in jobs that cannot be competitively sustained in this country if we seriously intend to participate in a global economy, yet nobody seems to have considered the true scale of the challenges. Either we reskill our citizens far more than we are doing, or we close our borders and run our economy on an isolationist Soviet-style basis, or we sit back and wait for unprecedented social disorder as the cost of living rises in the coming decades, whilst the poorest will become utterly marginalized due to their inability to compete with their lower-paid rivals in the emerging economies around the globe. However, in the midst of this pending disaster, it is the most flexible and hence competitive element of our workforce – the singletons – who are made to carry more and more load, for less and less reward. Worst of all, instead of helping singletons to behave responsibly, we have a government that punishes them for their efforts. Helping people to save for a family and to build a career so they can afford to raise children should be the starting point. Instead, the government’s attitude seems to be that children will be born one way or another, to the responsible and irresponsible alike. That has twisted the government’s role into guaranteeing subsidies to parents, and to pay for those subsidies by taxing people without families. The constant repetition of this message – always focused on who Robin Hood gives to, and never completing the circle back to where the money was taken from – has even given the Conservatives a new way to recruit gay voters. As gay voters are not motivated by cheesy homilies about family life, they can more acutely discern who is expected to pay a disproportionate share of the bill.

There are lots of simple and cost-effective ways to really help families. Free school buses would ease parent concerns about the safety of their kids, cut fuel bills and hence family costs, reduce road congestion during rush hour and help the environment. Free school meals, including breakfast as well as lunch, cuts family costs at a time of rising food bills and ensures children are properly nourished and in the right frame of mind for a day’s education. This in turns increases the return on the investment being made in schooling. Universal provision of school buses and school meals will keep costs to the taxpayer down, by virtue of economies of scale. If any party could see the merits of universal, state-driven action to benefit society, it would be the Labour Party. But these policies will never be supported by the Labour Party, because they are not vote-winners. And they are not vote-winners because many ‘families’, by which we really-mean adult voters with children, would rather have more money in their pockets and the freedom to decide how to spend it, instead of tangible benefits uniquely targeted at their children. Some parents want to drive their kids to school. Some parents want to feed their children with hamburgers. In the saddest irony of all, child obesity is on the rise, and this in turn puts yet more unnecessary load on our health services, which are increasingly expected to provide solutions for dieting and diabetes. If parents want to be wasteful, so the logic goes, then parents know best and the state should not interfere. However, the state does interfere, by expecting everyone else to cough up the money on the pretext that raising children is expensive, with or without the extra waste. Instead of government taking responsibility directly for the well-being of children (who do not vote) it gives money to the parents (who do vote) and then gives them the freedom to do what they like with it. It should be no surprise if some of that money is just wasted, leaving the child worse off than if the government really was mindful of the best interests of children, family and society as a whole.

Will attitudes change? Only time will tell. However, the revolt over the 10p tax debacle indicated that some sections of our society have grown tired of the endless mantra of “for the good of the family”. In his party conference speech, Gordon Brown used the word “children” on fifteen occasions, “families” on twelve, and he referred to “parents” eleven times. The word “fair” featured forty-six times. This is how his speech finished:

Together we are building the fair society in this place and in this generation.

The mission of our times – the fair society, the cause that drives us on – and we will win, not for the sake of our party, together we will win for the sake of our country.

Not once did Brown make any mention, promise, or implicit reference to the needs and desires of that growing number of singleton households. In those households, the occupants pay higher bills, work longer hours, get fewer tax benefits and receive fewer state services. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, thanks to government legislation, singletons have worse job security. Many of these singletons are struggling to find the money to buy a home, to make savings, to feather a nest before bringing new life into the world. Even if they have no desire to reproduce, it seems trite to suggest that it is ‘fair’ that they must pay increasing subsidies to those that do. Brown is still an old-fashioned socialist at heart, he left it relatively late in life before he started a family, and he embodies traditional working-class and Scottish values. You might expect he would hence some sympathy for the idea that responsible parenting means making money before making babies. That means looking after the singletons, on the assumption they will then be better able to look after the families they will eventually raise. So far, he has not done that, but he has been let off the hook because none of his political rivals have dared to argue the case for singletons either. But it is doubtful they can continue in this vein. Punishing the responsible singleton cannot go on indefinitely, not least because resentment will grow, but also because the numbers of singletons is set to grow as well. The single life is not fair, and certainly not free. If the economy goes sour, and if singletons find their burdens grow even more as a consequence, they may at last begin to act as a collective. A force like that could change the political landscape. Many political movements are like pendulums – they swing in one direction and as they do, they build up opposing forces until they start swinging back again. Brown may be the ultimate spokesperson for equating “fair” with “family”. If that equation leads to more obvious inequality, the pendulum will swing the other way. That is no bad thing, if it encourages the emergence of both a society and governments that value citizens based on who they are and what they do, and not based on crude categories like marital status and number of offspring. All politicians had better prepare.

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