They just won’t go away… the Iona Institute opines on cohabitation. October 30, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Religion, Social Policy.
I want to write about Education and the Budget, a subject close to my heart, but I haven’t had the time to do so overnight. In the meantime some may have caught the report in Tuesday’s Irish Times which noted that Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has come under fire for arguing that the tax and social welfare laws unfairly discriminated against cohabiting couples in the Republic.
Never a group to be slow to respond the Iona Institute swung into action:
David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, has responded that “cohabitation must not be made equivalent to marriage” and that it would be a “serious mistake” to make cohabitation equivalent to marriage in our tax code.
“Research shows that cohabiting relationships are much shorter-lived than marriage and this is particularly bad for children. British data from the Millennium Cohort Study shows that one in four children of cohabiting parents suffer family breakdown before they start school at the age of five. This compares with one in 10 children with married parents.”
It meant “that for the sake of children we need to encourage marriage by providing incentives to get married. In turn, that means giving it advantageous treatment in the tax and welfare codes.”
He added: “Cohabiting couples are not being discriminated against because they can exercise the choice to marry if they wish. In addition, according to one Irish study, three out of four cohabiting couples either marry or break up within the first seven years of the relationship forming.
“This is similar to overseas findings. Cohabitation is rarely seen by couples as a permanent alternative to marriage and the State should not treat it as such.”
Yet it’s odd, isn’t it? Because there is a logical counter-argument that runs like so… if the state were to implement supports or equivalency in the taxation code wouldn’t that have a solidifying effect upon cohabiting couples? In other words the benefits that would accrue from such recognition would itself incentivise those couples to move towards marriage, or would at the very least disincentivise them to break up? After all, if they don’t work to support marriage why on earth have them at all?
After all, such a pseudo-utilitarian argument is implicitly made by Quinn himself when he argues:
“that for the sake of children we need to encourage marriage by providing incentives to get married. In turn, that means giving it advantageous treatment in the tax and welfare codes.”
Where is the distinction? Sure, as with marriage given the availability of divorce, some couples would break up, but it would hardly be beyond the wit of a state to build in processes which would very subtly nudge people to see the benefits of sticking together.
Now on an accompanying blog on the Iona website [apologies, there aren't individual url's] he somewhat expands on the quotes
Now intriguingly he avoids the statistics and data about cohabitation and moves onto trickier conceptual terrain. He suggests that:
It’s a pity in its consideration of this issue that The Irish Times did not go beyond a mere assertion of prejudice (itself the result of a prejudice?) and ask itself whether there is a rational, fact-based reason to treat marriage and cohabitation differently.
Which is fair enough. His answer?
There is such a reason and that reason is the effect of marriage on children. To repeat what has been said ad nauseam on this blog, marriage is the most pro-child of all social institutions because it provides a child with a mother and a father in a publicly committed relationship. Children benefit from having a mother and a father both present and engaged in their lives and they are much more likely to stay together if married. This is testified to by the evidence.
Hmmmm… I’m not so sure. I’d argue that ‘family’ is the crucial context or indeed ‘social institution’ if you prefer. And since families come in all shapes and sizes – with marriage being but an element (albeit the majority) of many of them – I’d tend to the view that concentration on marriage over family is a mistake. Moreover its reification is both pointless, since we know that society will continue to generate families that have no component of marriage about them, and arguably offensive to those who find themselves in such families without that component.
And more to the point, it is not marriage that provides the child with a mother and a father in a publicly committed relationship, but circumstance. Some people will make that journey, others won’t. But chances are the child, the mother and the father will exist one way or another.
And while it certainly is true that ‘children benefit from having a mother and father both present…and they are much more likely to stay together if married’, I’d drop the much in that sentence and suggest that it is futile to argue perfection when we know it cannot be achieved.
But the argument takes an odder turn when he suggests:
It is because marriage is so pro-child that we give it special protection, special benefits, as well as special social recognition.
Here we see a curious inversion where the institution of marriage becomes more important than the actuality of the relationships. Something he is almost explicit in noting when he says:
It attacks it as a social institution by stripping it of its distinctive and special social, legal and financial character. It demotes it by saying there is nothing special or socially advantageous about this institution.
That would seem to ignore both religious and cultural aspects of marriage that imbue it with a character, either in the secular or religious versions, which has sustained it as the most popular expression of public relationship amongst people. That’s not going to disappear simply because the state affords similar or the same rights to cohabiting couples. Arguably it will increase the distinctiveness of secular/religious marriage, and after all it’s up to Quinn and the Iona Institute to make that case.
Yet curiously, for an institution that the Iona Institute champions so strongly, they’re strangely pessimistic about marriage itself. A glance at their press releases (2007 – natch – not updated) reveals reports about ‘marriage breakdown in Ireland’ of the problems of childcare and so on, to the point that one might query why anyone would wish to enter such a union and deal with its effects (although I was entertained somewhat to see that they quote Amanda Platell as an authority on cohabitation – wow, not the first person who I’d call on for such advice). Such supposed frailty would in many generate questions as to whether it was the best possible familiar structure, but not them, not them (incidentally I think marriage as an institution is fairly robust and for all the alarmism it seems to be surviving well into this new century).
Of course… that presupposes that this is an argument based in non-religious arguments about social stability. But I fear that may not be the case, since as the Irish Times notes:
The Iona Institute describes itself as “a pro-religion and pro-marriage organisation”.
And yet, and yet, I have the strangest suspicion that the real source of discomfort here is not so much co-habiting couples as another cohort represented in unexpected numbers in the webpages of the Instititute, those who seek same-sex unions. For after all, if Emily O’Reilly is correct, as I’d hazard a guess she is, and there is an injustice in not giving co-habitees taxation rights, then surely the next step must be the extension of same to those seeking same-sex unions.