Published in 2006, the Breakdown Britain report was a breakthrough for social conservatism in this country. Out went the moralistic finger-wagging of old, in came a compassionate, evidence-based explanation of how social issues like fatherlessness, substance abuse and educational failure contribute to economic inequalities.
The report changed the terms of debate and thanks to the superb work of the Centre for Social Justice, this continues to the present day.
Inevitably, there were counter-arguments from the liberal left – especially on the issue of family breakdown. Their trump card was the experience of Scandinavian countries like Sweden – characterised by a high prevalence of non-traditional family structures, but low rates of poverty and inequality.
In a post for the American Enterprise Institute, Bradford Wilcox takes a closer look at this apparent conundrum:
“Sweden, in the view of many progressives, is the closest thing we have to the Promised Land. Among other things, the Swedish welfare state has done an exceptional job of fostering an egalitarian income distribution and minimizing poverty. The generosity of the Swedish welfare state has led some progressives to claim that the impact of recent family changes—e.g., increases in divorce, single parenthood, and nonmarital childbearing—is minimal on Swedish children.
“Last year, for instance, Paul Krugman argued that family structure didn’t seem to matter much for Swedish kids, ‘perhaps because the welfare state is so strong’ there. The thinking here is that family structure need not matter for children’s well-being, so long as parents are guaranteed a decent income, as they are in Sweden.”
Boiled down, the left liberal position is that ‘family breakdown’ is just another choice – and even if it does have unfortunate economic consequences, the welfare state can make it all better.
This overlooks two problems: The first is that the welfare state is fast running out of money to make it all better. The second is that man does not live by bread alone – and neither does woman or child. Bradford Wilcox points out that welfarism “doesn’t capture the emotional and social costs of family instability and single parenthood that play out apart from the economic toll associated with family breakdown”:
“…even in Sweden, the evidence continues to mount that family structure matters.
“…a 2003 Lancet study of the entire population of Swedish children found that ‘children in single-parent families were about twice as likely to suffer from serious psychological problems, drug use, alcohol abuse, and attempted suicide, compared to children in two-parent families.’”
“…A new study of divorce (which included separation for cohabiting parents) finds that young adults from divorced homes are 48 percent more likely to experience psychological problems than their peers from intact families. In 2000, 17 percent of young adults from divorced homes were depressed, compared to 9 percent from intact families; and 20 percent from divorced homes had ‘nervous trouble’ compared to 12 percent from intact families.”
There is, however, something that Wilcox doesn’t mention, which is that nice, liberal Sweden isn’t actually all that liberal. For instance, the country has some of the toughest – and most successful – policies in the world on drugs and prostitution. And as for that famously generous Swedish welfare state, its generosity comes with strings attached. Lone parents are expected to work (helped along by well-funded childcare provision) and, even if they split up, both parents are expected to take an active part in the upbringing of their children. Deadbeat dads are not encouraged.
We can therefore come to the following conclusions: Firstly, that welfare can compensate for some but not all of the economic impact of family breakdown. Secondly, that a welfare system based on both rights and responsibilities can help with other problems – such as parental absenteeism. And, thirdly, that the best and most affordable option is the mini-welfare state known as the intact family.