That’s 1.8 million children, which is the number of additional children affected by the trend away from marriage since 1980.
Alas 1.8 million is nowhere near the full number of children affected. That’ll end up at around 8 million children, equivalent to every single child born over a 12 year period.
Because an increasing proportion of children have been born to relatively unstable unmarried couples over the last few decades, family breakdown has increased more or less every year. During this time, the number of lone parent families has doubled.
However, had this trend away from marriage not taken place – and the proportion of children born to relatively stable married couples remained at 1980 levels of 88% rather than the current level of 53% – then the number of children born since then who have experienced or can be expected to experience family breakdown might have been nearer 6.2 million, equivalent to every child born over a 9.5 year period.
Family breakdown among children born this year will now be some 44% higher than it should be. This is the shocking new finding from a research paper I’ve produced today for Marriage Foundation.
The press release and full report is available here. Today’s Times covers the story well about the number of children affected, while the Telegraph and Mail focus more on the trend away from marriage.
Put another way, the extra 44% is the potential prize for society if we can encourage couples to re-establish a clear sense of commitment before having children.
Until 1980, almost all couples were married before having children. Today only half are married. Of course this doesn’t mean that couples who don’t marry can’t do perfectly well. It’s just that only one in three couples stay together while bringing up children if they never marry. Compare that to three out of four married couples who stay together.
Establishing this disparity in break-up rates between those who are married and those who are not when their child is born is what has allowed me to estimate the cost of the trend away from marriage. Previously, it’s been possible to establish what proportion of intact parents with teenagers were married and what proportion were not. What’s not been possible is to work out how many of those married parents were married before or after their child was born: i.e. we couldn’t make a decent link between births inside and outside marriage and who then stays together. Now we can.
Sceptics may try to argue that the increase in family breakdown has nothing to do with being married or not. Whether couples stay together is all about the kind of people they are, they will say. Unmarried cohabiting couples tend to be younger and less well educated, which is indeed the case.
But what has happened since 1980? Mums are having their first baby 3.4 years later. Real disposable household incomes have doubled. Three times as many people are achieving 5 GCSEs at C-grade or above or their equivalent.
On any of these bases – age, income, education – family breakdown should have been going down. Instead it has gone up. It’s therefore hard to attribute the rise in family breakdown to anything other than the trend away from marriage, a reduction in formal commitment, and a consequent increase in instability.
Interestingly, although lots of studies have found that age and education seem to have an effect on stability, most of these studies only cover the early years of parenthood. My study, published last month, showed that over the full period between birth and age fifteen, age and education didn’t affect break-up rates in any significant way. What did matter was whether parents were married before or after their child was born.
Only yesterday, I read an American article on how both political left and right in the USA are beginning to reach a consensus that marriage matters. The weight of evidence from research has become impossible to ignore.
Alas here in the UK, we have a different kind of consensus. On the evidence of the party manifestos, and regardless of the weight of evidence from research, marriage is to be ignored or trivialised. Only two of the five main parties mention marriage at all, and then via a tax allowance that will be too small to make any impact yet will still cost the taxpayer a fortune.
I mentioned in that last post that I am a man of hope. And I am. The good news story is that if we can quantify the full cost of the trend away from marriage, then we can also quantify the scope we have for strengthening families.
The bad news story is that 1.8 million children may beg to differ.