Six years ago the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) presented David Cameron with Breakthrough Britain, a blueprint for the social recovery of the UK. Tackling family breakdown was at the heart of the prescription for reversing social breakdown. The then Leader of the Opposition responded to this report with an unequivocal endorsement of the need for family stability and the importance of marriage.
He went into the general election promising to do everything in his power as Prime Minister to lead to the most family-friendly government ever. Despite his genuine resolve, when it comes to the most pressing family policy priority of improving stability there is very little to show from that rightly ambitious rhetoric.
Our report, Fractured Families: why stability matters, published later this week, makes this lack of delivery depressingly clear. Since 2010, the formation of lone-parent families has continued to rise, unabated, at a rate of 20,000 per year. By the time of the next election, we will have crashed through the two million barrier. The CSJ would be the last organisation to indulge in lone-parent bashing; our Alliance of several hundred grassroots charities tackling social breakdown works day in, day out, with parents raising children on their own. They are the ones who tell us how tough it is, how much harried mums (only eight per cent of those raising children on their own are dads) would appreciate an extra, reliable pair of hands in the home on a permanent, committed basis.
For too long a harrowing litany of statistics has been buried through the fear of stigmatising those who rarely chose to go it alone, but in so doing we have, as a society, ignored the lack of choice around parenthood facing so many women and men in low-income neighbourhoods. Aspirations to marry are solid across the social spectrum, but the cultural and financial barriers to realise those are almost insuperable, especially in the pockets of intense disadvantage we identified where up to three quarters of families are headed by only one person.
That’s why explicitly supporting marriage through the tax system is not a right-wing obsession or a middle class bribe: marriage is a social justice issue. When we send the strong signal that commitment matters, it plays into the hopes and dreams of the poorest – and puts more money into their pockets, pound for pound, than raising personal tax thresholds. However popular the latter, we have to be honest that it’s not progressive, but lines the wallets of higher-income, dual-earners far more effectively than those struggling on low wages.
And honesty is what this report is all about: three million children growing up in households where poverty is two and a half times more likely and is often driven by the breakdown of the family unit itself – women’s income immediately drops (on average) by more than 10 per cent.
Many of the fathers who have been written off held their newborn baby in their arms and longed to do a better job than their own dads. But we found it is all too common for early years and other support services to ignore young men. When the expectation is that they won’t be involved, they are told they don’t matter, and they are not wanted, ducking out is far easier than bucking the trend and the ‘men deserts’ we found make some kind of tragic sense.
It’s simply not true that family breakdown is inevitable – more relationship support, more local government accountability for stabilising relationships as part of tackling poverty, a Minister for Families and more explicit support for marriage and commitment. Eminently achievable – but not without flinty political will.
This article first appeared in Conservative Home