The collapse of the marriage culture is arguably the defining issue of our time.
A new analysis (from Harry Benson of The Marriage Foundation) showing Britain is the Western European capital of family breakdown also shows, definitively, that lone parenthood is driving it: the separation of unmarried parents, not divorce, as many might assume. Only in Eastern Europe, where only Latvia does worse than us, does divorce remain the main driver.
You might think as a result of such a worrying finding that urgent meetings would be taking place at Number 10 on how best to reverse this trend. You’d also be forgiven for believing that relationship experts would be pushing for pro-active marriage policies, as in several America States, in response to their similar crisis. According to Harry they are not. Marriage does not even enter their vocabulary.
About the only ray of light, revealed yesterday in the Daily Mail, is that responsibility for family policy has been shifted from Nicky Morgan at Education to Iain Duncan Smith at Welfare. Since IDS, through the work of the think-tank he founded, the Centre for Social Justice, is one of the few ministers prepared to sing the praises of marriage, that is encouraging. But if this only adds up to applying the Government’s so-called “family friendly” test to policies, first announced by David Cameron in the summer, it will prove a pointless exercise. Family Friendly is no more than a slippery piece of spin, intended to gull the public into thinking that the Tories stand up for traditional values when, after Cameron’s obsession with modernity, they no longer do any such thing. Call it a “Marriage Friendly” test and it might mean something.
For the simple truth is that neither men nor women thrive without marriage. And the fact that men and boys suffer most seems to be of no concern and entirely without leverage as far as public policy is concerned.
It is indisputable that fatherlessness drives income inequality, child poverty, and declining mobility, yet we still find the Government blithely pursuing child poverty reduction targets without any reference to, let alone any attempt to, reducing fatherlessness.
Instead, the Home Office and other departments seem preoccupied by spurious equality issues – that our great challenge as a society is to ensure the gender pay gap is closed, to secure 40 per cent women quotas on boards by hook or by crook.
They are blindly indifferent to the startling decline in the fortunes of moderately to poorly educated men over the past several decades (which I referred to in my ‘social mobility’ blog last week. So fixated are they on so called ‘family friendly’ policies like getting mothers back to work as soon as possible after childbirth, they ignore mothers’ preferences and infants’ needs in equal measure.
No wonder ‘labour force trend’ analyses here and in the United States show women gaining ground and men losing ground. But as Belinda Brown argues here it is all for nothing. She shows there is no evidence that woman friendly employment activities increase company productivity or significantly increase the size of the workforce at all. What they increase is levels of male inactivity.
An analysis by two MIT economists entitled Wayward Sons, published earlier this year, explored why this was happening. Were women, they asked, gaining ground because they proved to be better at the tasks a highly information-rich economy rewards, or was the loss of brawny jobs to blame for men’s falling labour-force participation and declining earnings? They weighed and measured each proposition carefully.
But the conclusion the authors arrived at had nothing to do with these possible hypotheses.
What they found underlay the trends was quite different. It was the dramatic change in family structure since 1970. In that year 69 percent of black men without a high-school diploma were married. By 2010, it was just 17 percent. The marriage rate among non-college-attending whites and Hispanics had also declined precipitously .
They went further and examined the link between family composition and child welfare (also well established here in the UK but all too often forgotten). “Wayward Sons” focused on the differentially harmful effects of fatherlessness on sons versus daughters.
“Growing up in a single-parent home appears to significantly decrease the probability of college attendance for boys, yet has no similar effect for girls.” Boys from such homes “are 25 percentage points more likely to be suspended in the eighth grade than girls from these households, whereas the corresponding gender gap between boys and girls from households with two biological parents was only 10 percentage points.”
I would be interested to hear what the comparable figures are here in the UK if anyone has done the analysis and can enlighten me. I suspect, given the ever growing rates of girls getting into university and the professions, something very similar is happening.
The point is this, as Geoff Dench has observed from his analysis of British Attitudes Surveys, over the years a vicious cycle has been underway.
Poorly educated women do not find marriageable mates among low-earning or jobless young men – even though their aspiration would be for marriage. These women then raise children alone, handicap their sons more than their daughters, and then the cycle repeats itself.
Even amongst the middle classes marriage is deferred – both in deference to ‘career’ and the declining number of ‘equal’ partners, making no one happy and adding to this spiral.
But given that married men are healthier and happier, given that children especially boys need fathers, and the evidence suggests that girls still aspire to marriage, what I ask policy makers, is there not to like about marriage? The fear of being negatively branded by feminists well past their sell by date, should they dare assert approval of it?
How else do we explain our politicians keeping their heads firmly stuck in the sand on marriage? Or is it something worse – that government today thrives on the maintenance of poverty driven by family breakdown? Are there just too many vested interests in churning it all along?
Whichever, the worse the marriage stats the nearer we are to Armageddon – to imploding, as a society and as a polity.