They are more likely to stay together, more likely to be happy, less likely to receive housing benefit or live in poverty, more likely to have children who do better at school and have fewer problems with their behaviour or well-being.
As recently as ten years ago, many would have questioned this entire premise. “Where’s your evidence?” they asked.
Up until the mid-2000s, there was a dearth of UK evidence on how family structure might be linked to family outcomes. Over in America, there was plenty, through journals, public policy initiatives, and popular books. But over here, apart from a few lone voices, there was little. The Centre for Social Justice, to whose early work I contributed, can claim a great deal of credit for this change. And I would like to think that our own recent work at Marriage Foundation has also helped.
So now we do have a wealth of evidence linking marriage to more positive outcomes that is also widely accepted. This is a battle that is all but won.
But just as few now disagree that married families tend to do better, it remains the case that few public figures have the guts to stand up and say marriage is best for families.
Within our new government, as with our last government, there are two stand-out champions of marriage: welfare minister Iain Duncan Smith and Prime Minister David Cameron.
This is what the Prime Minister has said publicly about marriage: “There is something special about marriage: it’s a declaration of commitment, responsibility and stability that helps to bind families. The values of marriage are give and take, support and sacrifice – values that we need more of in this country.” Private conversations suggest he deeply believes this. “We really must get you married,” he was reported as saying to a twenty something aide in the back of a car. “Marriage is wonderful.”
Despite the evidence and fine words of these high profile champions, marriage gets precious little support from within wider government.
In government itself, our first pro-marriage policy in decades is a new tax allowance that is expensive, poorly targeted and too small to have any effect on individual behaviour. Far from being a full-bodied, integrated and coherent attempt to change behaviour for the better, it looks and feels like lip service, a reluctant and half-hearted one-off.
In the policy world, with the exception of CSJ and ourselves, most policy groups who write about marriage are less than enthusiastic. Marriage is all about the kinds of people who marry, says one influential group. If you “really compare like with like“, there’s not much difference between married and cohabiting couples, says another. ‘Selection’ is the reason cited for why married families tend to do better. But this is not good enough. The evidence from peer-reviewed studies is that selection falls short of explaining all.
And in the media, outside of our independent national press, marriage gets little support from our most influential national news organisation. Every one of the sixteen research papers and briefing notes produced by Marriage Foundation in the last three years has received extensive national newspaper coverage. Not one has been picked up by BBC news.
Perhaps the line that is most dismissive of marriage is this. “Correlation does not imply causation“. I hear this phrase again and again. What those who say it really mean is that “It’s all correlation. Marriage doesn’t cause anything.” They overlook the equally valid point that “Correlation doesn’t rule out causation“.
To me this explains why so few of the prime minister’s colleagues share his enthusiasm and why the encouragement of his former guru Steve Hilton in today’s Daily Mail to back marriage will likely fall on deaf ears.
Even people who instinctively support marriage – and it is notable that almost all leading politicians are themselves married – don’t quite know how marriage could possibly make a difference. So they are rightly nervous when confronted by the cohabiting couple who vehemently reject the need for a piece of paper. “We’re just as committed,” they say. “We’ve been together ten years“. All of which may well be true. But it doesn’t undermine the reality that most married parents stay together and most unmarried parents do not.
So even if the first battle has been won – the evidence that marriages tend to produce better outcomes – there’s an arguably more important battle to fight next.
Precisely how might marriage make a difference? The answer lies in how commitment actually works. And that will be the topic of my next article!