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James Bartholomew: Which families does the State support?


Edited extract from The Welfare State We’re In by James Bartholomew (Biteback 2014, £14.99). Buy on Amazon here.

The welfare plan outlined by Lord Beveridge in his 1942 report had no special provision for lone parents at all.

For an unmarried teenager in 1950 there was no council flat, no rent rebate, no rate rebate, no housing benefit or anything of that sort at all. There would probably be little or no National Assistance. The burden of supporting her and her child fell, above all, on her family.

One can imagine that the father and mother of an unmarried teenager who got pregnant would not be at all pleased. Instead of their daughter marrying a man who would support her, the mother and father would have to support her themselves for years to come – and the new baby, too. Their home would probably become crowded if it was not already. They might also, very probably, be furious with the young man who made her pregnant. It is easy to believe that the financial realities created a culture in which having children outside marriage was thoroughly disapproved of.

What about married parents bringing up children? How was that kind of family supported – or penalised?

They received no benefits and neither were they penalised. The state was not involved except in those cases where a family obtained subsidised council housing. Even then, the subsidy was relatively modest at that time. As for penalties, a family on average income or less with a couple of children paid no income tax at all. The personal allowance – the amount of income on which no tax is paid – was relatively large and there was a married couples allowance and tax allowances for each of the children.

The typical working man and his wife in 1950 lived an income-tax–free existence[1]. They could keep every penny they earned. This simple fact made the two parent family eminently viable. It had every chance of success because it was not hindered. It was not given special advantages of any great size. It was just left alone.

But gradually governments levied income tax on couples with lower and lower incomes. By 1975-76, under a Labour Government, such couples earning only half average incomes were liable to tax. It has been politically easy to let inflation silently reduce tax-free allowances. Newspapers, television and politicians concentrate on rates of income tax and rarely notice personal allowances.

Meanwhile, the situation for lone parents has dramatically changed, too. A lone parent is likely to receive – sooner or later – free accommodation. She – it is predominantly a she – will get a council house or a flat, a place in a hostel or ‘bed and breakfast’ accommodation on a temporary basis. In due course, there is a good chance she will eventually get a flat or a house. The rent will be paid for her. So will the council tax. She will not be required to seek work until the children are aged 16 [this limit has now been lowered to five]. Her children will get free milk and school lunches. She will get free prescriptions, free glasses or contact lenses, free dental work, a Sure Start Maternity Grant of £500 and, if she takes part-time work, a childcare subsidy of £67.50 per week for one child or £100 for two or more. She will receive cash in the form of Income Support, the level of which will depend on a wide variety of adjustments. She will also get Child Benefit.

So since 1950, the relative positions of a lone parent bringing up children and a couple doing the same have been transformed. Lone parents used to get nothing and now get a great deal. Working couples used to face no income tax but now they are caught in the tax net even if they earn well below average incomes.

The state has even brought about a situation where, in some cases, two parents are considerably better off living apart than together. The state’s impact is not always so negative but in most situations the state has inadvertently arranged for there to be some disadvantage to marrying or even co-habiting.

Have these changed circumstances had any impact?

It certainly looks that way. In 1950 most children were brought up by their natural married parents. Now the proportion is falling below 50 per cent. It would seem likely that, a change in welfare benefits changed the culture of bringing up children outside wedlock just as it had (in the opposite direction) in the nineteenth century.

But there will still be some who think that cultural change came first and the change in welfare benefits and tax merely followed and reinforced that change.

There is one way of testing this. If culture were the prime mover, rich and poor would be likely to participate in a similar way. In fact the rich would probably lead the change and be the ones who became lone parents most. This, in fact, is what is argued by some commentators who have said that writers and upper-middle-class people such as members of the Bloomsbury Group, D.H. Lawrence and, after the war, people like Antonia Fraser, who left her husband for John Osborne, and Elizabeth Taylor who became a child star in 1944 and got her first (of eight) divorces in 1951 led the way, creating moral precedents for the less well-off.

Has the elite led the lone-parenting boom?

Certainly not among teenagers. According to an analysis of the Government’s Family and Working Lives Survey in 1994/5, only two per cent of women whose fathers are top professionals became teenage mothers at that time[2]. The incidence of teenage mothering among the elite turns out to be tiny. But among the girls whose fathers are unskilled workers, 23 per cent became teenage mothers. The lowest socio-economic classes are eleven times more likely to have babies in their teenage years – normally outside marriage. These young mothers then go on to constitute 31 per cent of all lone parents[3].

What about divorce? Has the elite led a ‘culture’ of divorce?

It does not seem so. According to a study of divorce made by the government in 1984, the divorce rate among the least well-off is more than four times higher than among the socio-economic elite[4].

Some may think that there is something about those who are poor which makes them inherently more likely to divorce. But historically, divorce has actually been more common among the rich. Up until recent times, divorce was something that only the rich would undertake. Only they could afford the proceedings and the expense of maintaining separate homes. Henry VIII could indulge himself with six wives because he was the richest and most powerful man in the country. But poor men and women had to stick together with more determination. The welfare state has turned all that on it head so that now the financial effect of divorce is least bad for the poorest and, correspondingly, most common among them.

The elite has not led the cultural change so it seems clear that the state, by taxing married couples and giving money and other benefits to lone parents, created a cultural change primarily affecting the less well-off. The welfare state created the lone parenting boom.

Some will object ‘Surely you are not saying the people deliberately become lone parents just to get a council flat and benefits?’

No, while there is some anecdotal evidence that this takes place, there is not enough other evidence to be conclusive. However it is reasonable to surmise that many less well-off young women end up becoming pregnant because they – and their parents – know at the back of their minds that the state will, in all probability, pick up the tab. That knowledge is likely to change how they think and what their mothers say to them as they grow up. Instead of saying ‘Don’t, for heaven’s sake, get pregnant. It would be a disaster’, any warnings offered are likely to be made in more moderate terms.

Similarly boys are probably not warned against getting girls pregnant in the way they once were. Parents don’t tell them it would be immoral to ruin a girl’s life by getting her pregnant without marrying her because they know that the girl will not be ruined. Unmarried parenting will not be – or rather will not be perceived to be – a disaster for her.

The changes in taxes, benefits and housing rules have had their effect slowly. And, that perhaps, is why the effect has not been widely recognised.


[1] Manual worker earnings supplied by what was called the Employment Department (in 1994), details of personal allowances from Inland Revenue website and kindly explained by Stuart Adam at the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Manual workers, of course, were paid somewhat less that the average of all employed people but figures for all employed people do not appear to go back that far. Also the proportion of manual workers in 1948-50 was far higher than now, probably accounting for the large majority. The chart below showing how income tax has spread to the poor, previously incorporated some estimates of the average of all earnings. This shows that a family with the average of all earnings was not liable to tax in 1949/50 if there were two children.

[2] The Social, Economic and demographic profile of lone parents by Karen Rowlingson in Lone Parents, Employment and Social Policy ed. Millar and Rowlingson (The Policy Press 2001) p178.

[3] Lone Parents, Employment and Social Policy op. cit. p179 based on Government figures from the Family and Working Lives Survey conducted for the Department of Education and Skills 1994/95.

[4] Social Class and Socio-economic Differentials in Divorce in England and Wales, Population Studies 38 (1984). It was written a while ago but the welfare state was in full swing and I know of no reason to think that similar findings would not be discovered if a similar analysis was made today.

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James Bartholomew
James Bartholomew
James Bartholomew is a journalist and author of The Welfare of Nations

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