Dear Mr Cameron, I’m glad my statistic on fatherlessness shocks you. Here are ten more shockers.

Dear Mr Cameron,

Last week, you put your finger on the problem of family breakdown, citing one of my own statistics. More teens have a smartphone than live with their father, you said. My stat was the one about teens not living with their father, between 41% and 43% according to data I sourced from the survey Understanding Society. Fatherlessness is an epidemic that has swept the land. You sounded shocked.

The trouble is that I don’t yet see much sign of a serious family policy that might acknowledge this, let alone address it. And time is passing. On top of the five years of coalition, we are now five months into your new government… and counting.

So in case my statistic on fatherlessness isn’t enough to jolt your government into action, here are ten more shocking stats, some of which mine, some from others:

  1. 45% of teenagers studying for GCSEs are not living with both parents. Ask your own teens about their class. I asked two of mine. One said more than half had parents who had split up. One said less than half. That brings it home. The national data comes from my analysis of Understanding Society 2009-2010 data.
  2. Family breakdown costs the taxpayer at least £47 billion per year. This is a lot more than your government spends on defence and half what you spend on education. Most of this money goes on additional benefits and tax credits that support lone parents. The figure is updated annually by Relationships Foundation.
  3. 60% of lone parents are on housing benefit compared to 10% of couple parents. Everyone knows that poverty makes family life hard and causes family breakdown. But we’re way beyond the stage of claiming that it can possibly be all about poverty. Family breakdown drives poverty as much, if not more. These figures come from my comparison of DWP (table 9a) and ONS (table 1) data.
  4. For every £100 spent on family breakdown, the government spends 1.5p on trying to prevent it. Compared to the £47 billion spent on family breakdown, DWP spends £7.5 million on relationship support, which includes funding for the counselling service Relate. This is like King Canute’s tide prevention policy. Frankly we may as well not waste our 1.5p. What difference can such a feeble amount possibly make? But it’s even worse than this. Most of this £7.5 million is for couples in crisis. Very little, if any, helps prevent couples get into trouble in the first place.16 Family breakdown £46 bn cost
  5. Divorce rates are plummeting, yet family breakdown is still rising. How can that be? Yes, my analysis of data from ONS shows that divorce rates are down by 50% in the earliest years of marriage and more than 20% overall from their 1980s and 1990s peak. Yet at the same time the number of lone parents has doubled since 1980. The only possible explanation for this increase is the trend away from relatively stable marriage and towards relatively unstable cohabitation. (And before anyone tells you that instability is all about poverty and education, these have both improved since 1980, in which case family breakdown should have gone down, not up!) 
  6. Cohabiting parents account for 19% of all couples but 50% of all breakdown. This is also from my analysis of Understanding Society data. In fact, wherever you look in the world, cohabiting parents are more likely to split up. Less marriage means more lone parents.
  7. Parents who are married before they have a child are far more likely to stay together. You married before you had children. Maybe you did it for traditional reasons. Your former deputy PM used to claim support for marriage was Edwardian. But I think you understand human nature better than he does. The truth is that if parents want to stay together until their child’s 16th birthday, the odds are stacked in their favour if they clarify their commitment to one another before giving birth – and stacked against if they don’t. Whereas 76% of married parents remain together while bringing up their children, only 31% of those who never marry manage this. Extraordinarily, only 44% of those who marry after they’ve had their baby stay together. Nor do mother’s age and education make any difference. It’s all about whether and when you make a clear formal commitment. Yet another of our analyses from Understanding Society.
  8. Only half of today’s teens will marry, even though almost all aspire to marriage. Ask your kids if they expect to marry at some stage and the most likely response is “yes”. Yet on current rates of marriage, only 52% of them will do so. Compare that to 90% of today’s 60 year olds and you can see how the family breakdown problem is going to keep getting worse unless we address this destructive trend away from relatively stable marriage. My analysis is based on ONS data.
  9. The UK has among the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe. A year ago, my analysis of data from Eurostat showed that we were #1 in Western Europe for family breakdown. Current data shows that we no longer hold top spot, now dropping just below Belgium and Denmark in the West and Latvia and Estonia in the East. But this is no cause for celebration. We’re not doing better. They are just doing worse.
  10. Your most effective family policy is the one that makes one quarter of a million couples pretend to live apart. That’s right. When parents can claim an extra £7,000 in tax credits by pretending to be single, why wouldn’t they? The new Universal Credit does nothing to address this disincentive to family formation. What kind of a policy makes it pay more to live apart than together? You even highlighted this “couple penalty” as a key illustration of why you introduced a five point Family Test just over a year ago. Since then, the couple penalty has got worse. And, by the way, your £212 marriage tax break to stay together doesn’t compete with the £7,000 you pay couples to live apart or split up.

In the past, you’ve said you are a big fan of marriage, a “commitment freak” in fact. This has always given me hope that at some point you may finally build a marriage-based policy that begins to deal with family breakdown.

The supreme irony is that most of the policy makers and influencers with whom you work privately agree with you. They know that marriage is important. They must do as well, because they are among the nearly 90% of top earners – anyone earning more than £43,000 per year – who are married if they have young children. So marriage is alive and well among the policy-making class.

The trouble is that they have also been astonishingly successful in dissuading people from getting married. Only a quarter of the lowest earners marry. Some of this may be down to the absurdly high perceived cost of getting married (although two trips to the registrar and a marriage certificate costs only £85). But the net result is high rates of cohabitation and even higher rates of family breakdown that leads nearly half of our teens to live away from their fathers.

So please be offended by my fatherlessness stat and also by the other ten stats.

Then invite your political colleagues – most of whom you probably already know are married – to explain why marriage matters to them personally but inexplicably shouldn’t matter to anyone else.

Maybe, just maybe, this challenge to their “do as I say and not as I do” stance on marriage might give you the ammunition to make the breakthrough in family policy that I hope you seek.

With kind regards

Harry Benson, Marriage Foundation (and married for 29 years by the skin of my teeth)


13 thoughts on “Dear Mr Cameron, I’m glad my statistic on fatherlessness shocks you. Here are ten more shockers.

  1. Harry, It is evident that marriage is a fundamental institution for a stable society, providing a basis for a harmonious relationship, security, certainty, and comprehensive environment for the nurture and development of children.
    However, to acknowledge such is political suicide for many.
    It would mean acknowledging the importance of gender, the need for a father and mother, and the denial of “feelings” over objective truth and facts. Political expediency would suggest it’s simply about numbers, a couple, with no regard for the gender qualities that both a husband and wife, mother and father bring to the home. The idea that as long as it’s “two” people committed is what matters , fails to grasp the reality of son, daughter, mother, father, husband, wife.
    As such there is identity crisis. Our obsession with gender equality has rejected our gender diversity. The different gender functions (husband wife etc) have been abandoned in favour of two being all that matters, or in some cases, one is considers enough.
    Another staggering statistic is the number of families that are not even cohabitees. Single parents who have never been a “couple”, other than to produce their offspring. They’ve never even cohabited.
    Domestic abuse is highest among couples who have or are in intimate relationships, but who are not living together. Cohabitees are the next highest group likely to be involved in DA, with the lowest group at risk being the married couple. Our government will not acknowledge or even gather the data on such issues. Marital status is not recorded. They are in denial.

  2. Having just broken up this summer, I would like to mention Relate. We went to the one in Brighton and it was useless. 1. Hard to get an appointment. 2. Expensive. It cost us £50 per appointment which was a real struggle to find. They say they can help with costs, but who wants to ask? 3. No real attempt to bring us together or suggest practical ways to improve our communication. 4. Nothing to take away and work on. 5. Too much emphasis on why we were having problems, not enough on how to move forward.

    I got the impression that our counsellor thought us a lost cause from the start and she ended up reinforcing my wife’s desire to leave, saying that our young child would not really care either way (he does).
    The cost to the government will be huge – as a family we were a functioning, prosperous unit, able to pay our way. Now we are all miserable, on medication and claiming benefits. I believe that a cheaper (like £20 per session) service with far more appointments available (especially within school hours) would have enabled us to get help before it was too late.

    • Thank you. What can I say? I’ve heard a lot of stories like this. Of course I’m also aware that the negative stories will probably get more of an airing than the positive. Personally I think there are better ways of dealing with relationship problems than counselling – unless you are lucky enough to find a counsellor whose priority is the relationship rather than the individuals and who will offer practical ways to make it work. There are some more ideas if you follow this link.

  3. Thanks Harry. Thoughtful insights as usual. Interesting video on youtube. “It’s the Steel: Bill Whittle’s Solution to Gun Control”. PS – Has the marriage foundation a master plan – what ideally should be done for society to reverse the decline of marriage?

  4. Hi I would like to see two things as part of a package of relationship breakdown management.
    1. Make it impossible for a couple to clog up the courts without first having exhausting the coo parenting avenues of mediation and joint counselling. I would make it an offence to not cooperate fully with the counselling process .
    2. I would also appoint a dedicated family worker who is trained in the psychology of family breakdown and give them powers to compel parents to cooperate and put the kids first.
    I would also ensure that all children workers are trained in the psychology of family breakdown , particularly in the mechanisms the lead to parent alienation .
    3. Ok I can’t count :
    I would make alienating a parent a criminal offence in its own right!
    Cheers tom

    • That sounds like it comes from a bad personal experience. I agree with much of what you say about the need for cooperation and coparenting, though I’d always prefer encouragement and fudge rather than setting draconian laws. Much of post-divorce management is for the benefit of the parents. The research evidence suggests that what follows a divorce – whether cooperative or not – is a lot less important to a child than what precedes it. Children’s perspective seems to be much more about whether the divorce itself makes sense and whether the split emerges out of pre-divorce conflict or out of the blue. I wrote about this in a study that came out this weekend. Here’s the link.

  5. I think it’s a shame that the opportunity wasn’t taken in this open letter to show the difference between tax paid by single income couples (with a one parent at home caring for children) and dual earning couples on same household income. This is integral to your argument about lack of support for couples. It may not be about marriage per se , but certainly it’s about couples bringing up children, which is integral to your excellent arguments about the need to support parents (ie when couples have started a family). A SIF ( single earner family) on £20k pays almost £3k more tax per year than their friends on two incomes (same overall household income) who may not have children. A SIF couple on £30k also pay around £3k m ore. A SIF couple on £50k pay almost £4k more annually compared to their friends on two incomes with or without children . A SIF couple on £70k pay £7.5 k more tax on household income with children than their friends who may not necessarily have any children. In other words many couples with children pay a ‘care penalty’ for having a parent at home looking after children. This puts a strain on finances and on the relationship. As you point out the marriage tax allowance is only partial and all too often people mistakingly think of it as something ‘extra’ or ‘a perk’ when in fact it’s only an equaliser, eradicating the penalty against a couple with a caregiving parent at home. It would be helpful if it were called a ‘family tax allowance’ rather than marriage tax allowance because it would make it a less toxic proposition in today’s climate where language is powerful and it would also reflect the need for fairer family taxation for people WITH CHILDREN TO SUPPORT AND RAISE.

    • Hi there, Thank you. I sort of agree about the skewing of tax policy toward double earners, although I’m not convinced it’s reasonable to compare a single £40k earner with two £20k earners as if they are interchangeable options for a family. But regardless of the merits of income splitting, or transferable allowances, or whatever, this issue doesn’t seem to relate very much to stability or family breakdown. It’s about the tax you pay and the signal this policy sends about the government’s preferred family economic model. I am on your side on this. However – and I imagine you will disagree with me here – in the context of this article this seems more like a lifestyle issue than a ‘shocking stat’!

      • The work of caring for children day in day out is never, ever a ‘lifestyle’ issue but thank you for your reply. Caring for children and living on one income – especially on 20k or 30k or around average household incomes (although wider circumstances count for a lot too ) needs to be part of the deal of supporting couples in raising their children and taking care of them within the family. Anyway your response is always appreciated. And actually comparing a £40k earner with two £20k earners is reasonable for many couples – it could be the choice between two parents working three or four days weeks each or one parent working whilst the other is in unpaid invisible work (ie caring). The couple may really prefer the latter (because mum is breastfeeding, possibly pregnant with third etc) but are forced into the former due to social and fiscal pressure.

  6. It would be useful (but sad) to find a shocking stat that shows that children fare less well when there’s no available parent to provide the day to day communication, love and hands on care that children need to thrive. Why? Because fiscal and social policy refuses to acknowledge that care responsibilities – and meeting those care responsibilities with day to day gentle parenting and care – is at least as important (if not more important ) than anything else in the world. Shockingly the truth is that many couples (married or otherwise ) are being led to believe it doesn’t matter if they both work full time and use nursery care, or aren’t there at the end of the day to put food on the table. But it DOES matter. Everyone knows it but children can’t talk so they can’t express themselves. Also it means more strain on the couple.

  7. Pingback: First marriage rates reach all time low, yet our married policy makers don’t think this matters |

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