- Births outside marriage is certainly a “powerful” predictor of social mobility. Professor Robert D Putnam*
- “Family structure is roughly as important as parents’ education in predicting future social mobility for children”. Professor Paul Amato*
Today’s Queen’s speech included the intention by government to introduce a new indicator of life chances.
It’s a great idea. In a world of social policy awash with personal biases and subjective ideology, there’s nothing quite like a bit of hard data to bring things down to earth. As a politician or policy maker, I may think that my policies are a great solution. But if the data suggests otherwise, then I need to rethink my policy. Better data means better policies.
However you may be surprised to know that an indicator of life chances already exists and has done for years.
In 1997, the Blair government set up its Social Exclusion Unit who defined social deprivation as “a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown“.
Three years later a series of indices of social deprivation were introduced. These have been published every three or four years since 2000 and include measures of ‘income’, ’employment’, ‘education, skills and training’, ‘health deprivation and disability’, ‘crime’, ‘barriers to housing and services’, and ‘living environment’.
Somehow ‘family breakdown‘ was never introduced, despite the best attempts of my late friend and warrior for social justice Nick Gulliford, who made it his mission to ask any and every politician about why it hadn’t happened.
Nonetheless the combined Multiple Index of Deprivation is still used today, most recently by the government in allocating cash for its Troubled Families programme.
So why the need for a new Life Chances indicator? And will it continue to exclude family breakdown?
The “Life Chances Agenda” is very much the legacy of Iain Duncan Smith, formerly of DWP and before that founder of the Centre for Social Justice, for whom as an independent advisor I co-wrote two formative policy papers on family breakdown and how to prevent it.
CSJ has long identified five pathways to poverty: these are ‘family breakdown’, ‘educational failure’, ‘economic dependency and worklessness’, ‘addiction’ and ‘serious personal debt’. These sound quite similar to the deprivation indicators.
Although Messrs Blair and IDS were both trying to address poverty in its wider sense, the big difference between them is that Blair’s policies – Surestart, tax credits – were aimed at treating the effects of poverty whereas IDS’s policies – welfare reform, Universal Credit, cabinet committee on social justice – are focused on helping people get out of poverty or avoid it in the first place.
So despite years of disappointment at government policies that have consistently failed to address family breakdown, here is a policy that could finally treat family breakdown with the seriousness it deserves.
If family breakdown does actually make it into the index of Life Chances, what should they measure?
Our own research, based on recent data from the household survey Understanding Society, shows that nearly eight out of ten parents who are married when their child is born will still be together when their child is fifteen. Contrast this with four out of ten parents who marry afterwards and three out of ten who never marry at all. Yes, those who are older and better educated are more likely to get married in the first place. But from the point at which the baby is born, the key factor that distinguishes those who stay together and those who don’t is whether they are married. Age and education no longer play any part.
The most obvious and robust lead indicator of family breakdown has to be ‘births outside of marriage’.
* At a private meeting in the offices of the Times in London – 2 November 2015 – I asked Robert Putnam if births outside marriage was the most powerful forward predictor of social mobility. He hesitated before replying “It’s certainly a powerful one“.
* Paul Amato’s quote comes from a discussion I had with him by email – 22 January 2016 – also about social mobility. His longer quote is as follows: “I would say that family structure is roughly as important as parents’ education in predicting future social mobility for children. In particular, having divorced parents negates the advantage of having college educated parents. But I don’t think anyone has done the definitive study to pin this down“