Kathy Gyngell is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies
A few weeks ago an
American commentator, Philip Cohen, said it was about time that public policy
caught up with the reality that fewer and fewer children are being raised in
homes with two parents. Since the
decline of marriage was universal, he said, and, in America, would hit
zero on current trends in 2042, we should learn to live without it.
What we must do instead, he said, is to reduce the
disadvantages to those who are not married – or whose parents are not
We know what that means, this side of the
Atlantic. It means the state becoming
the great provider and taking over the family’s role and responsibilities. It
means a bottomless pit of cash benefits and tax transfers in favour of maternal
employment, childcare support and childcare services, to square a circle that
can never be squared.
But if Mr Cohen came
over here he would see that ‘disadvantage reduction’ policies such as these
never catch up with (or make good) marriage decline because they continue to
drive it. So should he want to bring his USA 2042 projection forward, he need look
no further than to copy us.
For the evidence is building here that the draining-away of resources by the state from market based solutions to work /family
life, from recognising the family’s responsibility for bringing up
children through tax allowances to the state’s alternative provision –
interventions and direct controls – is exactly what has put the UK on its
particularly critical marriage termination path.
It is true, as Mr Cohen points out, that marriage
rates have fallen across all OECD countries. But what he ignores is that legal
marriage is still by far the most common adult relationship. Indeed some countries’
marriage rates have actually gone up in recent years and others – including the
USA – were always keener to head up the aisle than others in the first place.
It is the UK that has become the marriage decline
outlier. In 2009, the most recent year
for which it is possible to compare US and UK statistics (using OECD and Eurostat data and
methodology), the UK’s crude marriage rate of 4.43 was nearly three points lower
than the US rate of 7.31. (The crude marriage rate is the total population divided by the number of marriages.
The UK rate of decline is steeper too – since 1970
marriage has decreased by 48 per cent compared with 31 per cent in the US. When it comes to comparing our decline with
the OECD overall, the UK’s decrease of 48 per cent is significantly higher than the
average 38.5 per cent, That’s why it is a mistake to dismiss UK decline as just
part of a universal cultural phenomenon.
The stats suggest it is quite a specific one – mimicking (but worse
than) the ‘coming apart’ of those who do and those who don’t marry in America.
For, just as in the USA, the traditional social norm
of marriage has been maintained at the top, educated, end of UK society. At the bottom though the work ethic and
married family life have crumbled. According to an analysis of the available UK data by Neil
O’Brien – the Number 10 policy advisor – this divide has happened astonishingly
rapidly in the UK. Having children inside marriage is not only no longer
the norm at the bottom of society, it is increasingly rare. At the top
end marriage rates have barely changed.
He says children of lower social class men were just over a
fifth less likely to be born into a married couple in 1988 than children in the
top social class. Since then the habits of the classes have diverged quite
radically. By 2010, children in the top social class were twice as likely to be
born to a married couple as children in the bottom social group.
Neil suspects the data above is a reasonable proxy for
wider family instability in the UK. This we know to be one of the highest in the
developed world. It is characterised by lone parents ending up in poverty, cohabiting couples more likely to
split up, and their children doing less well on nearly every indices of happiness,
health and success than those of married couples’ children (independent of
socio-economic status). I am sure he is right.