Among the joys of living out in the sticks on a small farm are that we have a spare room, lots of countryside to explore, and various livestock with which to play. Alas we’ve no pigs and sheep at the moment as it’s that painful time of year when … well, you know, meat isn’t made in little plastic packages.
So it’s inevitable that over the half term holidays, we have more friends than usual to stay. Three families were lone mums and their children. The other two were married couples.
We especially like giving our single mum friends a break. Looking after children single handed is utterly heroic. Not one of these friends is in the position they are in by choice. It was never their romantic dream. But they are where they are and they need a bit of a helping hand and a cup of tea and a meal and a listen from time to time.
It is within this context that I did some new analysis of European statistics on lone parenthood, leading to a report on the drivers of family breakdown in Western and Eastern Europe.
For the first time – so far as I know – Britain is now top of the family breakdown table in Western Europe. We are only beaten in Eastern Europe by the poor old Latvians.
But there’s a fundamental difference in the driver of family breakdown between West and East.
- In Eastern Europe, despite rising births outside of marriage, lone parenthood is still being driven by the break-up of marriages.
- Across Western Europe however, there is no correlation whatsoever between lone parenthood and divorce but a very strong one between lone parenthood and births outside marriage. In other words, family breakdown is driven entirely by the break-up of couples who don’t marry.
- The UK – now number one in Western Europe – is an excellent example of this. Divorce numbers, and rates, have been falling since the early 1990s. Yet family breakdown has continued to rise unabated. How come?
The answer, of course, is that more and more parents are not marrying.
Nobody doubts that marriages fail. But it is astonishing how unaware people are that couples who don’t get married are a great deal less likely to stay together. Indeed only a small minority of unmarried couples manage it at all. They are the exception, in the same way that those who smoke 60 cigarettes a day and live until they are 90 are the exception.
Now I don’t blame previous governments for the relentless rise in family breakdown. After all, it has continued unabated under all governments since the 1960s.
But where I do get cross with politicians is in the absence of any kind of family policy to date (but see note below) that might contain or reduce family breakdown. At the core of this is their failure to acknowledge the hard evidence that it is unmarried parenthood – and not divorce – that drives family breakdown. It’s exemplified by the kind of half-witted statement that backing marriage is ‘patronising drivel that belongs in an Edwardian era‘.
In ignoring the evidence that virtually the only couples who stay together (93%) while bringing up their children are married, politicians reveal their contempt for successful family formation and are encouraging another generation of lone parents. No wonder we are number one in Europe.
I love my friends coming over to stay. But I’d love it more – and I know they would too – if fewer of my friends were in the position on their own that they are in.
If we are to drop down this terrible table of family breakdown, it would be a good start if our politicians would do what no UK government has ever done.
- Stop assuming that family breakdown is inevitable.
- Look at the evidence that almost all couples who remain together have got married at some stage.
- Encourage, reward, incentivise and support marriage.
(Note: the government has just announced five ‘family tests’ which, if implemented fully, really might make a difference. I’m not holding my breath. I will write about this separately)