Recently released statistics on family trends comparing life in 2012 with 1996 show twice as many children are now living in cohabiting couple families and the number living with only one parent has risen by a quarter.
These stats are two sides of the same coin – regardless of income or education, cohabiting couples are at least twice as likely to split up as their married counterparts.
Single parenthood is rarely a lifestyle choice and raising children to adulthood without two pairs of hands, two brains and dual earning power takes herculean effort on a daily basis. Very many wish they were not in that position and certainly do not want their children to follow in their footsteps.
The period covered in the statistics has particular political significance. They are, in many ways, a report card on the last Government’s family policy – and a harbinger of how this Government’s record will be perceived if they neglect to rise adequately to the challenge of family breakdown.
Tackling family breakdown has to become a policy priority if an epidemic – bringing more instability, more family poverty, fewer live-in dads and more lonely and impoverished older people – is to be avoided.
Until Labour came to power in 1997, Britain didn’t really ‘do’ family policy – apart from a few honourable, and mainly fiscal, exceptions such as the family and child tax allowances that were rolled into child benefit in the early years of the Thatcher Government. There was a sense, particularly on the right of politics, that families were private, ‘little platoons’ to be defended against state intrusion. Labour’s 1998 Supporting Families, the first ever green paper on the family, was revolutionary in laying out a role for government in strengthening families, particularly but not only those facing disadvantage.
However key aspects of this enlightened paper were not implemented. Most importantly, anything that dared suggest marriage was important or helped couples work out their relationship difficulties, was quietly dropped or radically de-prioritised.
Yet research shows helping parents get on better together is the most effective way of improving parenting. Preventing parents from splitting up can save their children much heartache, poor mental health, fragility in their future relationships, educational failure and subsequent employment difficulties and the poverty associated with lone parenthood. The CSJ has found that fractured family life is almost always at the heart of the entrenched disadvantage which is the target of the Government’s Social Justice Strategy and their Troubled Families agenda.
The CSJ recently released the Forgotten Families? report challenging David Cameron to beef up family policy. Recognition of the social benefit of marriage in the tax system would send a vital cultural signal. Putting relationships at the heart of the public health agenda would highlight the knock-on effect of breakdown on all aspects of life.