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Harry Benson: The real child poverty is not about money


I don’t know how she does it.

A friend of mine lives on her own with her three young children. She left her partner long ago, almost immediately after the birth of the third child. Since then, she’s brought up her children single handed, surviving on benefits and, in recent years, a part time job. She’s an amazing mother, stoic, determined and utterly dedicated to her children.

They are friends with my own children. They’re polite, healthy, well-adjusted and doing OK at school. So far at least, she and her children are a lone parent success story. So what’s the problem?

Well, for her, it’s not the life about which she dreamed. It’s been incredibly hard. Whereas couples have two pairs of hands to make family life work, she has had to do it on her own. Some will say it’s an advantage not to have an annoying husband to manage as well! But I know she would quite like somebody with whom to share the load occasionally, another parent, an intimate friend, a shoulder on which to cry, a source of encouragement, affirmation and the odd compliment, a break, a proper income.

Many years ago, she revealed to me that she’d probably never have left her partner without the cushion of the welfare system on which to fall back. Her choice is costing the state over £20,000 per year after tax.

Every year. She undoubtedly makes use of her wonderful talents as a mother. But with so much of her life consumed by survival and managing her children, the part time work she does now hardly reflects her education and skills.

In her case, the ‘problem’ is the tangible cost to the taxpayer. Even then, all that money still only buys her a life of subsistence.

For many other single parents, the problem is the intangible cost to the children. It’s easy for lone parents to overcompensate with their parenting, whether too strict or too lax. On the outside, children can look fine. My friend’s children do. But it’s on the inside that the effects of family breakdown are most persistent, in terms of how we see ourselves, relationships, commitment and the wider world. The knock-on effects can manifest in teenage misbehaviour and problems at school, family and work problems as an adult.

The real child poverty is not about money. It’s the incomplete view of the world we get through not experiencing at first hand the reliable love of two parents, a marriage, or a father. People cope and situations can be salvaged. But it’s so much harder making family work as an adult when we’ve not seen it as a child. I know.

I recently did some estimates for Marriage Foundation on how family breakdown has changed since 1980. That’s the year when divorce rates began to plateau and cohabitation began to take off.

Some 27% of all children born in 1980 were not living with both natural parents when they reached age 15. For children born in the 1990s, this proportion had shot up to 40%. Today it’s about 45%.

What on earth has gone so wrong that nearly one in two parents can’t keep their relationship together for 15 years?

It’s certainly not down to background factors like age and education. Mothers have been getting older and ever better educated since 1980. In which case family breakdown should have gone down, not up!

In any case, I’ve just shown in another recent finding that age and education have no influence whatsoever on whether parents stay together over 15 years.

What does matter is whether they marry before their child is born, marry later, or don’t marry at all.

The equation is a simple one. Married parents who stay together are the norm. Parents who don’t marry and stay together are the exception. Fewer couples marrying means more break up. That’s it.

There are two main reasons why marriage and cohabitation might both matter to stability.

Getting married is based on a decision about the future. Making decisions change the way we view things and behave subsequently. Buying in for ourselves makes us more likely to stick at what we do.

Moving in together doesn’t change our personal commitment to one another. But it can entangle more fragile relationships. Inertia then tempts dissatisfied couples to keep going into parenthood rather than call it a day. Half of all family breakdown  involves children under three and three quarters of that involved unmarried parents.

The cost of this long term trend away from marriage and commitment is dramatic.

Among children born this year, just over half have married parents. By the time they reach age 15, some 280,000 will not be living with both parents.

Had the proportion of married parents remained at 1980 levels, the equivalent figure would be around 195,000. That’s 85,000 additional children born this year likely to experience family breakdown because we don’t commit as well as we did in 1980. Add up all the years in between then and now and it reaches 1.8 million children, and rising.

Not all relationships will, or should, last. I don’t know if my friend would have stuck at hers had she been married. But when I look at the big picture, I see that whatever we’re doing now, we could be doing it so much better. We desperately need to regain our confidence in marriage, for the sake of 1.8 million children.

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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