Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
When the Centre for Social Justice took a root and branch look at the causes of poverty almost 13 years ago, we discovered parts of Britain where family life had almost completely broken down. When the CSJ first published Breakthrough Britain in 2007 we found children affected by family breakdown were overwhelmingly more likely to fail at school, develop an addiction, and demonstrate serious mental health problems – all major pathways into a life of poverty. The impact on children is still well documented with Government reports falling over themselves to pinpoint family stability as the ‘primary’ driver of childhood life chances.
Figures show that family breakdown is a big driver of UK poverty as children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to be living in long term poverty. When couples break up, children suffer and poverty in the family is often not far behind.
As a society, we should be much more concerned about this, especially when we consider that family stability is unequally shared. By the age of five, 48 per cent of children in low-income households are not living with both parents, compared to 16 per cent of children in middle to higher income households. Two out of three children growing up in poverty will experience family breakdown. Family stability is becoming a middle class preserve.
In new data we discover that Britain lags behind much of the world in relation to family stability. Three in five (62 per cent) British children born to unmarried parents living together experience family breakdown before they hit their teens. In contrast, only 45 per cent of American children, 15 per cent of Belgian children and six per cent of Spanish children born to cohabiting parents go through this experience by the age of 12.
We’re almost top of the league for the number of lone parent families too, with only Latvia amongst our European neighbours having a higher proportion of children growing up in single parent homes. Almost a quarter, some 24 per cent of under 18s are being brought up in lone parent households in Britain, compared to 15 per cent in Germany and 13 per cent in Spain. Worse, in the UK the collapse in marriage is sharpest in the low income groups. The proportion of mothers without a degree who are married has fallen since the 1970s by an enormous 40 per cent – much more than other countries.
Yet family breakdown isn’t just about children, it plays a vital yet under recognised role in much of the growing demand for elder care beyond the home. Figures show that the offspring of difficult broken homes are less likely to care for their elderly or sick parents and grandparents. This in turn, places a strain on communities and services, a widely acknowledged problem issue at the moment.
The ‘world family map’ published by a group of American academics underlines how far we have fallen behind in rates of family stability. Almost without exception across the world, cohabiting couples are more unstable than married couples, even when they have children. In the UK, children born to cohabiting parents are 94 per cent more likely to see their parents break up before age 12, compared to children born to married parents.
Even among married couples, the UK has some of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe. A third (32 per cent) of British 12-year-olds whose parents were married when they were born have experienced family breakdown. In Austria the figure is nine per cent and in France 11 per cent.
Across OECD countries, approximately 82 per cent of children live in a household with both their father and mother, although in the UK only 70 per cent live with both parents – the lowest number in Europe and 25th out of 26th among all the OECD countries, Austria has 87 per cent, Italy has 89 per cent, (only the United States has a lower number – 69 per cent).
None of this is inevitable and it’s a modern trend. The UK has seen a steady decrease in the proportion of married households and an enormous expansion in the proportion of people cohabiting. Between 1996 and 2012, the proportion of dependent children living in cohabiting families has doubled. Cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in the UK. Only 11 per cent of family breakdown in 1960 involved unmarried families. This had risen to 25 per cent by 1980. Today Britain’s cohabiting couples make up a fifth of all couples with dependent children, but nearly half of all family breakdown.
It is peculiar that with facts as shocking as these that we don’t talk about family breakdown more, especially when we look beyond the human cost and consider how much it costs us all as taxpayers. Every year the Relationships Alliance attempt to put a price tag on the cost of family breakdown, the amount our broken relationships costs the Government each year. This year it’s anticipated to exceed £48 billion. That’s an eye-watering amount to simply ignore. To put this into context, whilst I have nothing against helping support the Church repair the fabric of its buildings, the state spends more on this (some £20 million) than it does on supporting relationships and helping families stay together (£14 million). This is a serious problem because this relationship support has shown conclusively that when undertaken responsibly it can help repair family relationships and stabilise marriage.
Even in prisons the effect of marriage and stable families matters. We know that when a prisoner has a strong family, that prisoner is much more likely to be rehabilitated.
When the CSJ first started talking about this issue it was considered taboo. We were told that talking about family structures and the impact of family breakdown on children growing up in poor households was moralising and not the business of government. David Cameron was positively enthusiastic about the role family could play in improving lives – especially for those children who are already growing up poor. Politicians shouldn’t be afraid of this issue. In fact it could be a popular narrative. When the Centre for Social Justice asked young adults about their aspirations for life, upwards of 75 per cent of them said they wanted to get married at some point. When we polled UK opinion more widely, we found it strongly in favour of promoting family with eight out of ten people telling us they thought family breakdown was a serious problem. Over half of lone mothers thought it was important for a child to grow up living with both parents and over 80 per cent of parents from social class DE (where there are the highest levels of family breakdown) agreed that it was right for the Government to say stability matters for children.
The Centre for Social Justice is about to begin a major piece of work looking into what Government can do to support families out of poverty and also what it has done they damages families. The Centre has set up a Family Policy Unit to look into what works.
One area where the Government could score an easy win is closing the couple penalty, a well-established phenomenon within the benefits system where couples are incentivised to live apart, by putting a financial premium on getting married. The Government’s Universal Credit reforms have already gone a long way towards achieving this. However, some couples can still receive a higher income if they live apart. With the Budget coming up the Chancellor has an opportunity to signal his support for supporting stable couple relationships by targeting the Marriage Allowance to low income families with young children. This payment should be significantly higher than the current level of £4.07 per week and targeted to couples where additional weekly income can make the biggest difference.
Targeting the Government’s Marriage Allowance is a cost-neutral approach to supporting strong, couple relationships. The previous Chancellor was never in favour of this allowance and the Treasury’s indifference has ensured that few people are aware of it. As a result there has been a large underspend. The new Chancellor has a big opportunity to target the payment to families who need it most and still be well within the Government’s own spending plans.
If any other issue had such a pivotal role to play in the life and wellbeing of the people of this country, government would throw resources at it. Yet when it comes to family policy and the growing level of fatherlessness in some of our communities, blighting young children’s lives, successive governments tip toe around it more concerned with offending people than trying to see what helps mend the breakdown. Perhaps now we can make a start at mending this problem before it is too late.