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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)