The most obvious indicator of life chances? Births outside marriage

  • 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


2 thoughts on “The most obvious indicator of life chances? Births outside marriage

  1. Harry, this is exactly the same with Domestic Abuse. The government will not record marital status in any recording of domestic abuse, yet the “intimate relationship” is at the heart of identifying the definition of DA. If they did so, as a practitioner in law enforcement and dealing with DA on the frontline, I am convicted the data would clearly show that the risk of DA is not universal among couples.
    It is at its lowest among marriage couples, and significantly many times more prevelant and likely among unmarried couples.
    If marital status of victim/perpetrators were recorded, the data would be stark. Being intimate outside marriage has a far greater risk of DA being likely in the relationship. So why does the government not record this readily identifiable aspect?
    Because it would show just how much DA takes place among the unmarried, and undermines the idea of “equality” among the various compositions of “family.”

    I know it’s a different topic, but if you could apply pressure of Government to record marital status when recording DA, the data would be startling and support the view of MF.
    DA is daily news. Instead of equipping the next generation to make informed choices about relationships, our government are betraying them, by not informing them that they may face a higher likelihood of DA if they are unmarried and in intimate relationships. Our young people need to know this fact.

    I fine it gauling that the Home Secretary will vilify the police in how they are dealing with DA, when no attempt is being made to identify the causes. (I.e. Jealousy , controlling and coercive behaviour is vastly more prevelant among those who have no commitment to rely on in their relationships.)

  2. There’s a special report in the Crime Survey of England and Wales 2013/14 that records marital status. See Appendix Table 4.09 here

    Marriage is the #1 protective factor for any domestic violence against women, non-sexual partner abuse against women, non-sexual family abuse against women. It’s #3 protective factor for stalking against women, and #6 protective factor for sexual assaults against women.

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