I have an interest in Great Britain and will post more articles about our sister country.
At last, the family takes centre stage in politics
Source: The Business 03/01/2007
THE politics of the family are on the cusp of changing for good in Britain, in one of the most fundamental intellectual shifts since the rise of new Labour in the mid-1990s. The leaders of both parties now speak out unashamedly in support of two-parent families and even marriage as the best parental arrangement; to argue that, in an ideal world, children would be best brought up by two parents, rather than one, no longer marks a politician out as a mean-spirited, bigoted reactionary. The statistical evidence is at last spreading its light among politicians.
A sign of this welcome shift is that the support for marriage expressed by David Cameron, the Conservative leader, is seen as being integral – rather than somehow in opposition – to his modern image.
There is, of course, resistance to this new consensus, especially by some politicians who try to pervert the debate by claiming that to support the two-parent family is synonymous with attacking single mothers, even though it is nothing of the sort. These include Harriet Harman, a candidate for Labour’s deputy leadership, who has espoused much of the social policy that has done much to undermine the family and who glibly dismisses Cameron’s family policies as “back to basics with an open-necked shirt”; and the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, another contender, who should know better because of his working class roots. This should have given him an understanding of how the collapse of two-parent families has turned a section of the working class into an underclass. However, he delivered an absurd speech on Tuesday billed as a push-back against the pro-marriage tide.
John Major’s botched Back to Basics campaign in the mid-1990s foolishly suggested that if you were pro-marriage, you had to be anti-single mothers. The sight of the most powerful men in the country railing against some of the most vulnerable women in
society turned stomachs (especially since their own private lives were hardly an example); it also set the debate back a dozen years.
It is time for politicians of all parties to review the evidence dispassionately. Sensible social policy should try to bolster marriage and help keep families together, inspired by America’s successful welfare reforms.
The extent of the retrograde revolution in British family life is rarely understood. In the past quarter of a century, the number of children being brought up by a lone parent has more than doubled to 3.2m. In 1972, 92% of children were being brought up by a couple; by spring 2005, that number had dropped
As recently as 1980, only 12% of all British births were outside of wedlock – although up from 8% in 1970. By 2004 that figure had spiked to 42%. Remarkably, no fewer than 15% of all children are now born and brought up without their father being present; the figure is far higher among the poor.
We now live in a society where lone-parent families are becoming the norm. According to the Office for National Statistics’ 2006 Social Trends survey, 64% of non-African, non-Caribbean black families with dependent children are single-parent families. Among blacks of Caribbean descent the figure is 57% and among those of African descent 47%. In 2001, in nine London boroughs 40% or more families were lone parent families, with the percentages rising to 48% in Lambeth, 47% in Islington and 46% in Southwark, three of the poorest boroughs.
In 2004, 149,300 children experienced the divorce of their parents – a fifth were under five and almost two-thirds under 10. Around 45% of British marriages end in divorce.
The malign consequences of this social revolution are being passed down through the generations. Great Britain has, by a 19% margin, the highest rate of teenage births in the European Union, at 26 live births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19. This is despite 46% of British pregnancies to under-18s ending in an abortion. In Sweden, Denmark, Slovenia and Cyprus there are only about six births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19.
While some single parents cope admirably (and some two-parent families do not), for most the
odds against success are stacked too high against them and their children. There is evidence to show that hundreds of thousands of children are suffering from the collapse of the traditional family and that poorer children in single-parent families tend to get hurt more than wealthier ones.
Kids growing up in lone-parent families in Britain are twice as liable to suffer from a mental disorder compared with those living with married parents: a fifth of boys living with a single parent who is divorced, separated or widowed are afflicted with a mental disorder; by comparison, the number among those living with married parents is only 8%. Children raised in reconstituted families have a 14% rate of mental disorders, compared to a 9% rate for those in a household with no stepchildren.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that children raised in either lone-parent families or broken homes are three to six times more likely to have been abused; no wonder a quarter of children in stepfamilies run away from home before they reach 16. Regardless of other factors, 17-year-olds not living with two-parent families are one and a half times more likely to do drugs. Just as depressingly, 70% of young offenders are from lone-parent families.
Children growing up without two parents are also losing out materially. While the overall percentage of households living in over-crowded accommodation has dropped from 7% in 1971 to 3% in 2005, 8% of lone parent households are in such accommodation. These children are also at far greater risk of living in a low-income family.
For all Chancellor Gordon Brown’s boasts, around 41% of lone-parent households with dependent children are workless, compared with just 5% of working-age couple households with children. Approximately three-quarters of children in workless households are living in homes with less than 60% of median income once housing costs have been deducted.
The costs to the public purse of family breakdown are considerable. In 2003-2004, 56% of lone parents with dependent children were on income-related benefits, compared with just 10% of couples. While 81% of “coupled parents” were employed, only 54% of lone parents were. Only about a quarter of 16 to 24-year-old lone mothers are in work and only 46% of those aged 25 to 34 with dependent children are. Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice Policy Group report estimates that family breakdown costs the state £20bn ($39.2bn, e29.7bn) to £24bn, close to the £32bn spent on defence in 2006-2007, and equivalent to £620 to £820 per taxpayer.
Many people, especially in politics and the broadcast media, even those who accept that two-parent households are on average better for children than one-parent homes, still feel queasy about the state actively encouraging marriage, feeling that this would somehow be illiberal. But the statistics show that children born to married, as opposed to cohabiting couples, are far more likely to grow up in a stable environment.
Almost half of cohabiting couples break up before their child turns five; only one in 12 married parents have split up by the same point. Holding all other socio-economic and demographic factors constant, cohabitees with young children are more than twice as prone to relationship failure as married couples. A recent study of 15,000 women who became mothers in the millenium found that unmarried parents account for almost three-quarters of all family breakdowns; it is hard enough getting and staying married; the omens for those who choose to cohabit are truly grim.
So those who wish for a tax and benefit system that is “bias-free” should think again. If nothing else, they ignore how the current system discriminates heavily against couples staying together. Jill Kirby, the Centre for Policy Studies scholar, calculates that if a family breaks down or a child is born to a single mother the cost to the state is £4,000 to £12,000 a year in additional benefits and reduced tax revenue. A couple with one working parent on £24,000 a year with a mortgage and two kids pay £5,000 more in tax than they receive in benefits per year. However, if they were to break up their two households could make £7,000 more from benefits than they contribute in tax.
Anyone who doubts that changing the tax and benefits system can tackle family breakdown should look across the Atlantic. While it is well known that the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reforms of 1996 ended the automatic entitlement to benefits and slashed welfare rolls from 12.2m to 4.5m, few in Britain realise that it was also designed to strengthen the family and deter teenage pregnancies.
By the end of the Clinton administration child poverty was at its lowest level since 1979 and the poverty rate for children of single mothers its lowest in US history. This was thanks to the incomes of poor mother-led households increasing by more than a quarter. The employment rates of even the least-qualified single mothers rose by 40%, while teenage pregnancies are down by 30%. The growth in out-of-wedlock births has also slowed radically, confirming that changing economic incentives can have an important effect on family structures.
Johnson argued on Tuesday that the “debate is about ensuring politicians don’t go back to moralising about the nature of the relationship and concentrate on helping the child.” We have no desire to moralise but politicians should be practical – and all the evidence shows that if we are to concentrate on helping the child the state should encourage marriage. This does not mean, though, that society should stop offering its love and support to single parents, many of whom achieve heroic successes with their children despite all the obstacles.
But the simple truth, buttressed by dozens of studies and oodles of hard data, is that in the majority of cases, marriage works better than any other child-raising system – and the poorer you are, the truer that is. Britain urgently needs a US-style welfare revolution, which puts at its heart the restoration of the traditional family and which ends the current system’s undermining of marriage.
The shift in the British debate is a positive first step; now our political elite needs to follow words with deeds and move to reverse the catastrophe that is Britain’s family policy.