Family breakdown in the UK


Universe Column for August 1st 2004

by David Alton

Britain now has the highest rate of family breakdown in Europe and, as I said last week, we are gradually waking up to some of the consequences. At last, the debate is moving away from a denunciation of anyone whose marriage has failed and has begun to address the consequences of family breakdown and, more importantly, what we can do about it. One of the best of the new thinkers is Jill Kirby, who chairs the Family Policy Project for the Centre for Policy Studies. She has written two compelling publications, “Broken Hearts – Family Decline and the Consequences for Society” (2002) and “Choosing To Be Different – Women, Work and The Family” (2003).

By relying on hard facts and data her argument is intelligent and unanswerable. She points out, for instance, that cohabitation, is not a substitute for marriage. The data reveals that couples who cohabit are more likely to split up once they have a child together and that a child born to cohabiting parents has a less than 50% chance of reaching the age of 5 before his or her parents have separated. In contrast, more than 90% of children born into married homes will reach 5 and still have both parents living together.  Which is the better scenario for a child?

And it’s not only children who suffer from the collapse of the family. Last month the think-tank, Demos, said that the retreat from marriage is having an impact on the numbers of lonely elderly people. Other surveys have shown that the main providers of care for the elderly are family members – particularly spouses and children or children-in-law. As the decline in marriage and increase in single-person households work through the population in the years ahead, this source of family care will shrink. Perhaps that accounts for one recent claim that as many as a million elderly people in Britain do not see a friend or a relative or a neighbour during the course of an average week.

So what can we do? Jill Kirby says look to America.

Following the 1990s decision of the Democrats to reform welfare, Americans have seen a levelling-off in the decline of marriage. More recently, The Institute of American Values, in conjunction with the National Fatherhood Initiative, has recently issued a report entitled “Can Government strengthen marriage?”– to which the report answers emphatically ‘yes’.

The report details the evidence on marriage and its beneficial impact on adults, children and society and recommends a series of public policy measures to boost marriage rates, reduce divorce, and remove disincentives to marry, particularly amongst low-income couples. Recognising that marriage is least prevalent in the poorest communities, the report calls on government to stem this source of inequality and give every child a better chance to ‘live the American dream.’ Research from the respected Brookings Institute asserts that marriage provides a better, more sustainable route out of poverty than cash, and exhorts government to match anti-poverty measures with pro-marriage measures.

Some of the measures recommended are already being implemented as part of President Bush’s $1.5 billion ‘Healthy Marriages Initiative”. Others are likely to follow in the near future.

Kirby says we could also look at the way the Australians provide marriage education and support and compare our tax and benefit system with other major European economies and the favourable tax regime provided for families.

This debate does not need histrionics or judgmentalism but it could do with a sober look at what people like Jill Kirby has to say.

Her booklets are available at www.cps.org.uk

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