Almost a decade of research at the Centre for Social Justice has confirmed beyond doubt that family breakdown lies at the heart of today’s poverty and inequality. Most people working in schools, hospitals and other frontline jobs don’t need to crunch the numbers, however. While there are many examples of children who do well in unconventional family settings, most teachers can tell if a child is suffering at home. Their ability to concentrate in class and their self-confidence take serious knocks if their parents are separating or if their father is absent from the home.
Children who succeed have parents who read with them, who take them to out-of-school activities and who prove that adults can disagree in a relationship without that relationship breaking down. They have what sociologists call social capital. They have the kind of support and sense of security that money cannot buy.
The figures released yesterday to mark the end of the first year of the Government’s Social Justice Strategy show that almost half of pre-school children from low-income households do not live with both birth parents, compared to one in six from better-off households. And it’s not just in the UK that poverty and single parenthood go hand in hand. Even in Sweden, considered by many to have the most generous welfare regime in the world, a quarter of children in single-parent families are in poverty compared with 8 per cent of children with two parents.
Yet very little has been done since the coalition came to power to tackle family breakdown, despite its epidemic proportions — and despite the pro-family promises made by the Conservative Party in opposition. An administration that has been brave in tackling the behemoths of education and welfare reform seems to have thrown in the towel when it comes to developing a clear and coherent strategy to strengthen families. This yawning policy gap threatens to undermine successes in these other vital policy areas. For instance, 80 per cent of difference in educational attainment has nothing to do with what goes on in schools but reflects pupils’ home and neighbourhood experiences.
It is simply not the case that nothing can be done to turn the tide of family breakdown. We could start by emulating the ambition of President Obama who vowed, in this year’s State of the Union address, “. . . to work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood — because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one”.
The current spending review should earmark funds for eliminating the “couple penalty”, which means many low-income parents lose benefits if they register as a couple. Transferable tax allowances for the married would do more to help poorer couples, pound for pound of public spending, than further increases in personal income tax thresholds.
We will never get the cultural change necessary to make relationship education as socially acceptable as going to an antenatal class unless the Government increases the profile of the pioneering work it is doing in this area and increases its availability across the country. Every children’s centre could be offering help for couples to weather the storms that relationships often sail into, as well as parenting support.
The recently launched Early Intervention Foundation should research the most effective relationship education programmes and encourage local authorities to make better use of voluntary and private sector family support services.
A Cabinet minister should be appointed to focus on family policy. That minister should return to the rich variety of policy ideas recommended to the Prime Minister by the Labour MPs Graham Allen and Frank Field. David Cameron asked both men to help him devise a strategy to ensure that children prospered in the most important first few years of their lives. Unfortunately very few of their many sensible ideas have been implemented.
The Prime Minister has talked about the social recovery that must accompany economic growth, but that cannot be delivered by state employees. Parents are the key to building one nation of equal opportunity and social justice.
This article first appeared in The Times on 25 April 2013