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HomeNewsHarry Benson's marriage lines: How family breakdown costs us all dear

Harry Benson’s marriage lines: How family breakdown costs us all dear


Amicable or acrimonious, civilised or conflicted, cooperative or combative, whatever form it takes family breakdown was never the dream. Family always begins with an act of love. Family breakdown always ends in a failure of love.

When love fails, there is always an emotional cost, whether to the parents or the children or those outside the immediate family or all of the above. Some cope better than others. But one way or another, all of us end up picking up the pieces as we help families sort themselves out and support lone parents in practical ways.

Setting the emotional impact to one side, there is also a quantifiable cost of family breakdown to the taxpayer. For the past nine years, the charity Relationships Foundation has produced an updated estimate of this. The latest of £51billion is the figure that is often cited by commentators and politicians.

So how do they come up with such a total? (see note below)

When families split up, resources of time, care and money that were previously focused on one household now have to stretch to two. Almost all couples are worse off after a split and the resulting lone-parent and non-resident-parent families require disproportionate financial support from the state. For example, using the government’s own numbers, 42 per cent of lone parents receive housing benefit compared with just 6 per cent of couple parents.

Thus by far the biggest contributor is the financial support that the state provides lone-parent families through tax credits, housing benefits and lone-parent benefits. Given that some proportion of couple families also claim support, everything above that pro-rata baseline can reasonably be attributed to family breakdown.

In 2017, additional tax credits, housing and benefits amounted to some £23billion or 45 per cent of the entire bill.
In second place is the cost of care for adults and children. These are all areas where the state has to step in to support children and adults whose own families are dysfunctional, disrupted, unable or unwilling to play a supportive role. Relationship Foundation attributes to family breakdown 98 per cent of the cost of looking after children in care, two-thirds of the cost to social services for looking after children at home, and 5-10 per cent of the cost of care services for the elderly.

The cost of additional care adds another £9billion, equivalent to 18 per cent of the bill.
The third largest contributor is health and mental health. For fairly obvious reasons, separation and divorce have long been associated with worse health, more GP and hospital visits, more risky behaviours and domestic violence among adults. Family breakdown is also one of the biggest, if not the biggest, predictor of mental health problems in teens, as we found in our own major study for Marriage Foundation.

The need for additional healthcare adds yet more money, amounting to an additional £8billion, or 15 per cent of the bill, over and above what would have been the case had these families lived as intact couples.
In fourth place is crime. When families split up, parental discipline and love are harder to maintain. A Youth Justice Board survey found that 70 per cent of young offenders were from broken families.

Some additional police and prison costs can therefore be directly attributable to family breakdown, amounting to an estimated £6billion or 12 per cent of the bill.
And finally there are other costs that can be quantified, adding a further £4-5billion or 9 per cent. These include extra court costs, teacher time spent dealing with unruly pupils, vandalism and criminal damage in schools, and free school meals.

None of this takes into account the potential loss of productivity from employees – or even employers – whose minds are not focused on work but on their crumbling family life at home. Married men earn more.

To summarise, family breakdown puts a huge emotional strain on those directly and indirectly involved but it also brings a direct cost to the taxpayer, in large part through financial support. However there are also additional needs for care of children and the elderly, additional health and mental health difficulties, additional behavioural problems that lead to crime, and additional educational problems that are a direct consequence of family breakdown.

In context, the sum of £51billion equates to more than half of what we spend on either pensions (£92billion) or education (£87billion) and more than we spend on either defence (£37billion) or debt servicing (£39billion).

Defence has its £37billion annual budget, a policy, a Secretary of State with a seat in Cabinet, an army of civil servants, and an Army, Navy and Air Force at its disposal. Defence is an important subject and is treated as such at all levels.

At £51billion per year, the budget for family breakdown is much bigger. Since the stability of families is every bit as important for the future of our nation, isn’t it about time we had a policy?

Note: Although I have used the overall figures for 2017 from Relationships Foundation, their latest report is from 2016. Further explanation of the methodology is available in the 2011 report.

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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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