Dr Samantha Callan is Chairman-in-Residence, leading on Family, Early Years and Mental Health, at the Centre for Social Justice.
National Marriage Week, 7th-14th February, has brought not only the snow but also Professor Scott Stanley from the United States. His suitcase is bulging with data and insights from federally-funded programmes which are strengthening families and stabilising couple relationships. In and out of ministerial meetings and high-level seminars, he has been showing policy-makers and politicians how poverty has been driven back in those states that have taken a couple-focused approach.
Professor Stanley, from Denver University, says "The message we have to send to people struggling with the drivers of poverty, including worklessness, debt, poor education and health is that, when it comes to outcomes for children, your love life is not neutral." Conflicted, complicated relationships, often entered into quite hastily, can thwart all other efforts to get and hold down a job. In turn this makes it difficult to get financially straight and become the kind of parent you want to be by providing your children with security and safety.
The states that invested most heavily in helping married and unmarried couples to make their relationships work have seen significant increases in the numbers of children growing up with both parents, and decreases in the numbers of children living in poverty. The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has consistently and effectively argued, since early 2006, that outcomes for children tend to be better, across a whole range of measures, if they are raised by both their parents. There is no doubt that many single parents are doing a heroic job in the teeth of often significant adversity. But they would be the first to say that it is incredibly difficult to keep your head above water, financially and otherwise, when raising children more or less alone.
So alongside help with parenting (‘parenting education’) we need to ensure that help with relationships (‘relationship education’) is available to all who want to break the cycle of family breakdown: intervening early before problems escalate. At present, the Government is piloting a parenting initiative, giving vouchers for advice and help to resolve problems before they come to a head. This is hugely important in the drive to mainstream parenting support but there must be a recognition that the same logic applies to couple relationships.
American data suggests that using the voluntary and private sectors to deliver low-cost but effective relationship-strengthening programmes to all that want them could lead to significant savings to the public purse. Mothercare offer parenting classes, why not relationship support too? This week the Relationships Foundation published the latest estimate of the cost of family breakdown, pegging it at £44 billion, up £2 billion from last year. This means that reducing family breakdown by just 10% would save enough money to build more than 70,000 affordable new homes.
These programmes not only do good ground work in helping couples manage conflict and encourage communication. They go further and help people currently ‘between’ relationships to identify danger signs, such as early indicators that a partner might be violent or volatile. They also aid the development of relationships at a speed that enables partners to really get to know one another. With the growth in much more informal relationships that often involve children, many people ‘slide’ quite quickly into living together without actually taking a well-informed decision about who or what they are taking on. It’s about getting to know if a prospective partner has drug, alcohol or debt problems for example before they are acting as a surrogate parent or babysitter for one’s children.
Relationship support is the next family policy frontier but also has significant implications for employment and mental health. Where relationship issues present barriers to work or undermine efforts to recover from mental health problems, Work Programme money and devolved health budgets should be used to enable people to access couple-focused support. This is not about using state funds to force people to stay together; it’s about increasing wellbeing, reducing the numbers of children being raised in homes where there are abusive and highly conflicted relationships and using all available levers to tackle family breakdown, a potent but badly neglected driver of poverty.