A prior concern not to offend, to be deemed judgmental, let alone to actually judge, has clouded three decades of family policy. For years anything that might seem to cast an aspersion on lone parenthood brings down the wrath of Polly Toynbee and her left wing soul mates on the hapless critic. It still does.
The received wisdom is that the family takes many forms and all are equal; never mind their differential outcomes for children. Disadvantage has to be dissociated from lone parenthood as though it were a detached socio economic fact, whatever the truth of the matter.
So it is ironic that measures designed to mitigate ‘disadvantage’ sustain it – from Income support to housing, from ‘early intervention’ Sure Start Maternity Grants (of £500) to childcare subsidies of £67.50 per week for one child or £100 for two or more, free school meals plus child benefit.
For much of this support is directed at lone parents. And who can deny their need? Their children indeed are in need of being ‘lifting out of poverty’. But that much of this is as a result of their parents separation or of having never been together in the first place cannot be mentioned, let alone judged.
How Government came to trap itself in this policy poverty cycle is the question.
I suspect the answer lies in family policy’s first commandment since traditional families were deemed passé and ‘out of date since the 1970s. It is ‘Thou shalt not offend’. That’s when the taboo on discussing the merits of on one type of family over another set in. Public figures such as Princess Diana in their speeches began to genuflect to the notion that families come in in all forms. It was when aggressive, rights oriented, lone parent pressure groups came into being.
It was when honest debate about the morality and effectiveness of the policies that might sustain and promote lone parenthood was strangled.
Today such is the power of this orthodoxy that even writers as splendidly independent as Melanie Philips always have to include in their family discourse the proviso and cliché, ‘of course many single mothers do a wonderful and sterling job’. There is no doubt that many do – I hope I did as a widowed mother – but it is not the point. For even if they do this cultural change comes at a price that society can ill afford.
As Harry Benson pointed out last Sunday, the economic cost of supporting Britain’s 1.9m lone parent families now adds up to more than the entire Defence Budget.
As he says what are really needed are policies to end the epidemic of family breakdown – and poverty – are ones that would deal with the trend against marriage. But that means committing the cardinal sin of saying marriage is preferable to cohabiting or lone parenthood.
What is also needed is full and free discussion of what has driven the lone parent and divorce booms in the first place. This too, as James Bartholemew found when he first tried to publish The Welfare State We’re In, has not been welcomed by the establishment. It took him eleven years to find publisher for the original book, a publisher bold enough to critique the welfare state as the problem not the solution. Most were appalled by the ideas in it, he later explained, as though they found them sacriligious or impermissible.
Today, in a specially edited extract from the new and updated edition of The Welfare State We’re on The Conservative Woman, he tracks the financial support given by the state to lone parents and to married couples from the 1950s through to the present. His charting the complete reversal of the financial position of these two family types since then – as a direct result of welfare support – startling.
As his analysis makes clear, by taking from Peter to give to Paul it is the State that has driven the cultural change that primarily and so negatively affects the less well-off. The State created the lone parenting boom and still feeds the epidemic of family breakdown. And as yesterday’s CARE report confirms the State continues to penalise the traditional family. Modern culture and society, being modern, will not criticise. It might be seen as old fashioned. Worse it might offend.