The £9 billion spent by the UK government on lone parent benefits is, according to welfare minister Lord Freud, just the tip of the iceberg of the cost of family breakdown. Acknowledging that the annual cost of family breakdown could be as much as £46 billion, Freud told the House of Lords that more efforts should be made to reverse the structural changes in society which have caused marriage rates to plunge. The minister is not just concerned about the huge impact on the benefits bill, but is worried about the effect on children, due to the fragility of cohabitation and the damage to children when parents break up.

Lord Freud is quite correct that a revival in marriage is both economically and socially necessary. The latest divorce rates suggest that where couples do choose marriage, the protective effect of is growing stronger, with breakdown rates slowing.  Significantly, far fewer divorces are being initiated by women. Divorce petitions have always been predominantly issued by wives, but this has fallen substantially since 2003, whilst the number issued by husbands has barely changed. Women seem to be valuing their own marriages more highly – but as the statistics also show, far too many couples are just not getting married in the first place.

When it comes to maintaining relationships and keeping families together, it is very clear that women hold the key. From 1970 onwards, British women began to decide they could do without marriage. Instead of viewing it as a route to family life and motherhood, they started to treat it as an optional extra. Marriage rates fell by 40% over 20 years, and the number of babies born to unmarried mothers rose from less than 10% to nearly 40% (and now stands at close to 50%.) If the trend away from marriage is to be reversed, more women need to acknowledge that motherhood without marriage is risky, insecure and ultimately bad for their children.

Why did women fall out of love with marriage? Did they succumbed to feminist propaganda, telling them that marriage would chain them to the kitchen sink? Or were they beguiled by the idea of freedom to run their own lives? Did they not realise that caring for children alone is much harder work than sharing? Maybe, quite simply, it became financially viable for them to go it alone: there’s persuasive research evidence to suggest that the decline of marriage was “the economics, stupid.”

Academics such as Libertad Gonzalez Luna of Barcelona and John Ermisch of Essex University have identified plausible economic reasons for the explosion in single motherhood in Britain from the1970s onwards. Gonzalez Luna examined benefit systems in 14 countries and found that the more generous the welfare support for lone mothers, the more likely it is that women will have children outside marriage; hence the high rate of  lone motherhood in the UK.

In a 2006 paper, bluntly titled ‘An Economic History of Bastardy in England and Wales’ (pdf) Ermisch considered the interlinking of social and economic reasons for women choosing to have babies without being married. Noting the widespread acceptance of cohabitation, but also its short-term nature, he wondered why, despite having access to contraception, women still took the decision to have babies in this looser form of relationship. He concluded that the removal of economic obstacles to single motherhood increased its prevalence, in turn helping to remove social stigma.

This reasoning is particularly apt for young mothers who do not have good career or marriage prospects, since the compensation they receive for becoming mothers is more likely to compare well with their potential earnings or those of their likely husbands. As modern day Britain and America both experience the “marriage gap” – whereby graduate women are much more likely to marry than their less-educated counterparts – these trends are emphasised.

So whilst it’s good that women who do marry are becoming less likely to divorce, we should be worried by the fact that many women are still deciding against marriage in the first place. After all, as Ermisch points out, women do have choices. And in deciding whether to have children, they hold the cards. If marriage is to survive beyond the educated elite, we need tax and welfare policies that encourage women to find marriageable men – rather than offering them a substitute. Lord Freud, please take note.

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