This is the remarkable finding from our new study released today, co-authored with University of Lincoln Professor Stephen McKay and using data from the Family Resources Survey and General Household Survey.
(See report in Sunday Telegraph)
Whereas 87% of the richest new parents – mothers with children under five – are married, just 24% of the poorest have tied the knot.
This finding highlights the Marriage Gap between haves and have-nots, at its most extreme between the top and bottom fifths of all families by household income. In today’s money this is equivalent to comparing those earning more than £43,000 with those earning less than £14,000.
Marriage among new parents matters a great deal. Our recent research had shown that parents who are married before they have a child are far more likely to stay together while bringing up their children.
The most recent announcement from the Office for National Statistics showing that 52.5% of births in 2014 were to married parents received almost no media coverage. And yet it is precisely the high rate of births outside of marriage than explains why Britain has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe – surpassed only by Latvia, Denmark, Lithuania and Belgium.
The chart below shows the extent to which marriage varies by income among new parents.
In our new study, we also found smaller but significant Marriage Gaps that have developed – especially since the 1980s – in other areas of life, reflecting big differences between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
There are Marriage Gaps between those who do and don’t have a degree, have a job, live in their own home, or smoke. Age matters a great deal as well. We found that marriage is least common of all among the youngest mums under age 24, just 16% of whom are married. All of these factors are undoubtedly inter-related. But our analysis showed that they also have their own individual influence as well.
So what do these remarkable new findings tell us?
They tell us that poverty and inequality aren’t just about education and income. Both matter of course. But the big political debates tend to focus narrowly on these factors and ignore the way we do family life at home.
Until now, it was easy to explain away the long-term trend away from marriage as a general phenomenon that has affected everyone. Before the 1970s, almost all births were to couples who were married – rich and poor alike. But the widespread introduction of birth control in the 1970s changed everything, allowing couples to move in together without fear of pregnancy. Social norms were gradually swept away and cohabitation became the new norm. Today marriage is wholly unnecessary. And the cost of a wedding is enough to put anybody off. Couples can and do live together and have children whether they marry or not. Nobody bats an eyelid.
So why are the rich still marrying in their droves whereas for the poor marriage has become the exception?
Maybe it’s because the rich know something about marriage, that getting married signifies commitment, that the formal commitment of marriage makes it far more likely that couples will stay together for the long run, and that staying together means staying well-off and avoiding the big loss of assets and income associated with splitting up.
In other words, the rich know that splitting up makes people poor and that marriage is the best protection against that happening.
Anyone who cares about social mobility and inequality should be deeply concerned that the poor are not marrying. That’s the big message from our study. Now we need to find ways to encourage a revival of marriage among the poor.