Family breakdown is seriously understated in official figures

That’s what I’m thinking every time the Office for National Statistics publish their annual Families and Households figures.The latest figures out today hold no real surprises, apart from being adjusted in recent years to represent the actual population better.

What they tell us is this:

  • 60% of families are headed by a married couple. That proportion has been pretty much unchanged for the last few years and drifted slowly downwards before then.
  • 15% of families are headed by a cohabiting couple. Although there was a tiny blip downwards in the most recent year, the trend has been steadily upwards, doubling since 1996.
  • 25% of families are headed by a lone parent, where the trend has been flat for the last decade and otherwise showing only a gradual increase.

All of this looks pretty anodyne. Not much change. A few less married parents. A few more cohabitees. Much the same proportion of lone parents. What’s to worry about?

41 ONS FH Families by marital status

It’s what they don’t tell us that really counts.

Remember that this is a snapshot. It’s a group photograph of all families with all children of all ages taken in 2014 and compared to the similar snapshots taken in previous years.

But if we’re interested in family stability, what we really need to know is what ultimately happens to each family when the children grow up.

In the latest snapshot, 25% of children live with a lone parent. Perhaps it doesn’t sound too bad to say one in four children face family breakdown?

But hidden among the parents who are couples, whether married and unmarried, are step-families. These are lone parents who have found a new partner, According to the last Census in 2011, they comprise a further 8% of families. So now we’re up to 33% of children who have experienced family breakdown.

One in three.

That’s still not the whole story. If we can segregate the teenagers on their own and ask them about their parents, according to our analysis of 2010 data from Understanding Society, we find that at least 45% are not living with both parents.

Almost one in two.

45 Understated family breakdown

I said earlier that there are no surprises in the new figures. But to many it may seem odd that only 15% of families are headed by a cohabiting couple when 42% of babies are born to unmarried couples. How does 42% reduce so dramatically to 15%? The reason is that an awful lot of unmarried couples split up. Some get married later on. But very few couples remain together without getting married.

It is this collapse of more and more unmarried couples that is the driver of family breakdown and reason why so many children have gone through it.

In the run-up to the election, I hope politicians of all parties will ask themselves if it’s OK that nearly half of our teenagers aren’t living with both natural parents. I hope that many of us will challenge them. If they seem concerned, I hope that they can ponder why so few couples remain together without getting married.

The equation is simple. If we turn our backs on marriage, we turn our backs on family stability. All of us need to start backing marriage.


2 thoughts on “Family breakdown is seriously understated in official figures

  1. Is anyone at the Marriage Foundation looking at the impact of male covert depression on family breakdown? It’s a tragic version of depression that often stays hidden until it’s too late. Frequently, men suffering depression will self-medicate (with affairs, drugs, drink, gambling, work and other self-esteem props) rather than face the issue. It’s not hard to see how this behaviour can lead swiftly to separation and/or divorce. It’s tragic because the male (sometimes female, but it has to be said that covert depression is much more common in men) assumes the partnership is the problem, and the family takes the ensuing damage. One positive step would be to raise awareness of the condition, encourage men to come forward for help, and also to make divorce lawyers more aware so that they can encourage divorce petitioners who seem overly angry and unreasonable (classic signs of depression) to reconsider, and at least delay until their emotions are more stable and, in extreme cases, until they have seen a medical practitioner.

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