‘I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love’. That was the Fab Four’s view, and it seems they aren’t alone.
Last week we heard the news that, in its first year, only 330,000 couples—of the more than 4 million eligible—have claimed the tax relief available to married couples and civil partners. Critics have labelled the policy an ‘utter flop’.
The tax break is worth £212 a year to each couple. Family breakdown, meanwhile, has been estimated to cost the taxpayer £48 billion a year through its effects on health, housing, lost work hours, legal aid and other related factors. It can affect children’s educational achievement, behaviour and mental health.
It’s a complex picture: all manner of factors can affect how children fare in the world, including poverty, parental conflict, and poor parenting. And what the statistics would term ‘family breakdown’ may even be beneficial for some children, if it marks the end of an abusive or otherwise harmful family situation.
The key, then, is to focus on the quality of relationships. But if you want to help charities working to understand and support healthy relationships—and if a tax incentive isn’t the answer—then what is?
Last week the charity Relate published All together now, its vision for a society where relationships have the support they need. In it they call for the government to expand its What Works network to include a center for relationship support, so that we better understand what is effective and why. They also call for the government to take a relational approach across all areas of policy.
Some evidence suggests that couple counselling can improve relationship quality, at least in the short-term, and the Australian government has been trialing the effectiveness of subsidies for relationship counselling.
There are a handful of national charities providing this service in the UK: not just Relate but also Marriage Care and the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, while oneplusone provides online resources for couples and professionals. Voices in the Middle speaks up for children whose parents are separating; others continue to campaign for high-quality relationship and sex education to be taught in schools.
It is not only couple relationships that matter. Good quality relationships not only with partners but also family and friends can prevent, delay or minimise the effects of physical and mental health conditions. Those of us with strong relationships are 50% more likely to survive life-threatening illness than people with weaker ones. The Kings Fund estimates that for every £1 spent on befriending services, £3.75 is saved on mental health service spending and health improvements. Our relationships are as important to our health as our diet or whether we smoke, if not more so.
The charity sector has long recognised the value of human relationships, running befriending, adopt a grandparent, and family support schemes, or building relationships into supported housing for older people and the disabled. The Men’s Shed movement is growing, and social prescribing shows that the health service is increasingly realising that a purely medical fix to all problems is neither sufficient nor desirable.
The married couples’ tax break is an experiment that—so far at least, and in its current form—seems to have failed. Thankfully, though, the charity sector shows that there are other ways to support quality relationships at all stages of life.
‘All you need is love’? Not necessarily, but it certainly helps.
A version of this blog was originally published by Spears Magazine.