Family Structure Still Matters
by Head of Family Policy, Cristina Odone
It’s the middle classes’ best-kept secret. One that improves children’s school performance, supports their physical and mental health and reduces the chances of exclusion, joining a gang or ending up NEET.
Among the top quintile of couples by income, 84% tie the knot. Among the bottom quintile only 45% do.
Family Structure Still Matters, found that even after controlling for income and education, there is an outcome gap between children whose parents are married and those who cohabit. Family structure has a greater impact on the presence of externalising behaviours – linked to cognitive development, physical and mental health, school attainment, criminal justice involvement and social and emotional development – than education or poverty.
Family breakdown rates vary considerably between cohabiting and married parents: a child of cohabiting parents is more than twice as likely to experience parental separation. After income controls were applied, 88% of married couples were still together when their child was aged 5, compared to 67% for cohabitees. Married couples are more likely to enjoy better health, relationship satisfaction and income, to have lower rates of domestic abuse and conflict with their children and to be a member of a voluntary organisation.
Marriage has a powerful social meaning that conditions the behaviour of its participants. It forces ambiguity into the open and requires a public commitment in front of family and friends. Cohabitees are less likely to have that specific moment of an articulated promise.
The Marriage gap is a social justice issue. Already half of all children are no longer living with both their parents by the time they sit their GCSEs but for children in our poorest communities this is true by the time they start primary school. Having married parents can be a step out of poverty. Among families with equal poverty levels in America, children with married parents had a 30-percentage point lead of moving out of poverty compared to those with cohabiting parents.
While cohabitation rises, high income couples continue to marry at consistently high levels. Our politicians choose to marry to bring up children, knowing the benefits that stability and commitment bring, and yet remain wary of making distinction between these two very different types of relationships.
Given the clear advantages of marriage, government should make every effort to distinguish between marriage and cohabitation in data collection and in policy recommendations. It does not. By ignoring this distinction, they lead people to believe that married and cohabiting relationships are interchangeable. This risks robbing couples of making an informed choice about what kind of relationship they should embark on.
We owe it to the most disadvantaged in society to not be silent on the benefits of marriage.
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