Category Archives: Families and relationships

Should HELP repayments be based on family income?

The Fairfax papers this morning have stories on a ‘push’ to repay HELP debtor from family income, in which I am quoted extensively. This idea is considered in our latest Grattan report on lowering the HELP threshold for individual debtors, but we did not propose it.

The appeal in the idea is that our analysis suggests that many HELP debtors who are not currently repaying, and likely a much larger proportion of debtors at risk of never repaying, live in reasonably affluent households. The reason they are not earning more than the $54,000 threshold is that they don’t need to, because another family member makes enough money that the household can maintain reasonable living standards without two full-time earners. It’s a little hard to read, but the slide below from the report shows the disposable (ie after tax and with non-taxable benefits) income of the households affected by our proposed $42,000 threshold. That’s not the whole situation – it excludes households where all HELP debtors earn less than $42,000, or over $54,000. But it illustrates how personal HELP debtor income is not a good guide to overall personal living standards.

family income

While repaying HELP from family income would make a big difference, it was not recommended for a range of reasons:

* How would we determine whether a couple was a couple for HELP repayment purposes? There are some clear potential markers, such as marriage or kids. But only about half the 20-something graduates who were living together as a couple in the 2011 census were legally married. What if you were legally married but had split?

* It would make life more difficult for employers, who currently deduct most HELP repayments. Now they can use their own payroll; in future they would have to know spouse or partner income as well. More people would make incorrect repayments during the year, and could be hit with major additional repayments at tax return time.

* Who would be legally liable to pay? Presumably it would have to be the debtor, with an assumption that partners would often choose to cover it. But that could mean people getting bills that exceed their income. If the principal income earner refused to pay, it would mean that HELP caused default, which it is not supposed to do. If the principal income earner was forced to pay, it would be an unusual case of someone becoming liable for debts they never took out.

While I would not say we should never, ever, consider a different basis for calculating repayment income, for this report I thought there were too many practical and philosophical issues for it to make the list of recommendations.

Which slopes are slippery?

Near the end of his anti-gay marriage article in today’s Age, Ted Lapkin does get to some substantive reasons why he thinks gay marriage is a bad idea. But much of the article is devoted to the slippery slope argument that once we have gay marriage we will slide into things we really don’t like, such as legal recognition of polygamy and decriminalising incest.

I don’t disagree with Lapkin that issues can develop their own logics, and that one change can make another change more likely. I think we are now nearing the base of a moderately slippery slope on gay issues. Once the state gave up on the idea of actively persecuting gay people for acting on their sexual desires, it became harder and harder to defend all the other ways in which the law disadvantaged them.

Lapkin himself says that everyone, gay or straight, is entitled to identical protections from the law – something that few conservative defenders of the family would have said until quite recently. Once you are sliding on the slippery slope, it can be hard to stop. The last conservative stand on gay issues at the Marriage Act is no more likely to succeed in the end than any of the other battles along the way.

The question then is not whether slippery slopes exist, but whether you can slide from one slope to another in any kind of deterministic fashion (“The floodgates will inevitably open to a further slide down the slippery slope of social disintegration”.) Read more »