Penny Mordaunt’s pretence at social justice and concern for low-income women, about which Kathy Gyngell wrote in TCW last week, is shameful. By pushing the least well-off women into employment she will be taking them away from the one thing they really care about – their families – and giving them poorly remunerated routine work in its stead. Having winkled fathers out of families, now we are turning on the mothers.

This is mistaken on so many levels. It is not just the wrongheadedness of middle-class women imposing their work-centred values on women for whom work is a daily grind and the greatest asset they could give to their children is their love and care.

This is only part of the issue.

All social ills – from the erosion of our telomeres, to school exclusions, poor educational outcomes, unemployment, child abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness – all of them – stem from family breakdown, specifically, growing up in fatherless homes.

How is this linked to Penny Mordaunt’s concern with getting poor women into work?

Family breakdown is largely the product of cohabitation.

And rates of cohabitation are linked directly to the male wage.

Research has shown that it is men’s earnings rather than women’s which has a significant influence on marriage. It has been the changes to men’s economic situation over the past few decades which provides the clue as to why the least well-off men and women are so much less likely to commit.

This has been demonstrated in study after study. Oppenheimer, using longitudinal data, found that male career stability and earnings levels affected their marriageability. Corse and Silva, through qualitative interviews, found that male employment issues stymied marriage as men doubted their attractiveness as potential partners. Women too had anxieties about commitment to what they saw as ‘unreliable men’. Xie et al explored the role of economic potential on relationship formation – they found past earnings strongly accelerated the marriage process for men but had no effect on the likelihood of marriage among women. Cohabitation occurred regardless of earnings for both women and men.

Smock and Manning examined how a cohabiting couple’s relative economic contribution influenced their transition to marriage. Men’s favourable economic circumstances accelerated marriage and reduced the likelihood of separation. The higher the man’s annual earnings, the greater the likelihood of marrying rather than continuing to cohabit. Having a college degree increased the odds of marrying by 150 per cent. Again no patterns emerged in response to female earnings. The odds of marriage could be predicted from the men’s economic characteristics alone.

Bertrand, Kamenica and Pan found that it wasn’t just the man’s income which was crucial to marriage formation but the relationship between the husband’s and wife’s income. They found that among the couples where the wife earned more than the husband they were both less happy in their relationship, and there was greater likelihood of divorce. They found that marriage rates declined as the probability that men earned less than women went up.

A massive statistical project looked at how trade shocks affected marriage through their impact on manufacturing employment. It showed how a decline in male income resulting from a loss of manufacturing jobs increased the rates of cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births and reduced rates of marriage. The same report also showed how a decline in the female wage increased the value of the male wage bringing about an increase in rates of marriage and marital fertility, and a decline in cohabitation and teenage pregnancy. As the gender pay gap increased, rates of marriage went up.

There was a cascade of negative effects. Decreases in the male wage only were linked to suicide, higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, crime, custodial sentencing and homelessness. This in turn decreased the number of males available to low-income women. Research shows that where there are increases in the proportion of women to men this reduces women’s bargaining power. Women compete with each other for the few men available, men have little incentive, let alone ability, to support a family, and rates of out-of-wedlock birth go up.

These findings are relevant to us here in the UK. For the past 20 years the rate of increase of the male wage has remained almost stagnant while the rate of increase of the female wage has been creeping up. Men at the bottom of the income distribution have also seen a decrease in their hours and are increasingly pushed into poorly paid part-time work. Factor into that the ‘flexible’ employment of the gig economy – insecure employment, without sick pay, holiday pay or workers’ rights. This ‘flexible’ employment is 70 per cent male while ‘flexibility’ itself has been a major government strategy to help get women into work.

For decades governments have believed that the way to solve poverty is to increase female wages. Therefore, we have paid no attention to the implications of the loss of manufacturing or the plight of boys in education for the family. Or the impact of increasing competition on the male wage. One result has been an increase in social inequality with dual-income families at the top pushing up the mortgages – while at the bottom there are single-earner families often with no father at all.

The family was once a source of social insurance and protection for the least well-off in society.

Now it has become the institution which reproduces and embeds inequality even further. And this is because marriage doesn’t happen when men have inadequate work.

The women who shape our policies are women who have husbands. And as so often, what is most invisible is what is right in front of their nose. Because they have husbands with decent earnings, these women can be pickier about their jobs and work fewer hours. Part of the higher gender wage gap among the middle classes is the result. They are not under the same pressure as their husbands, or as poorer women, to work. Evidence shows that when men marry they work harder. When they have children their earnings go up even more. These are the privileges of middle-class women.

But all they can see is that they don’t earn as much as their men.

Meanwhile women lower down the income distribution are forced by policies like Penny Mordaunt’s to work all the hours God sends them in low-waged jobs over which they have little choice. Often they may be the main or only household earner but Penny will be happy because she can argue that she is helping to close the gender wage gap.

The gender wage gap is an asset of our privileged classes. The fractured families of the least well-off in society do not need to close the gender pay gap. What these families need more than anything is a decent male wage.

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Belinda Brown
Belinda Brown is author of 'The Private Revolution' and a number of well-cited academic papers. More recently, she has started writing and blogging for The Daily Mail and The Conservative Woman. She has a particular interest in men's issues and the damage caused by feminism.