5 Mar 2008

Poverty – is it the cause or consequence of family breakdown?

Martin Narey is chair of the End Child Poverty coalition and chief executive of Barnardo's. He was formerly head of the prison service at the Home Office. He has been appointed by Nick Clegg to chair the Liberal Democrats' commission on social mobility because he is seen as an independent, expert voice, Andrew Sparrow reported in the Guardian on Monday 3rd March 2008.


Guardian: “When Iain Duncan Smith looked at this for the Conservatives, he identified family breakdown as a cause of inequality. Do you think he's got a point or do you think he's barking up the wrong tree?”

Narey: “I wouldn't say he's barking up the wrong tree. I met IDS for the fist time [recently] and I found him enormously impressive. But I would offer an alternative theory, which is that dire poverty leads to family breakdown. Anyone who has brought up children or a family, if you think seriously about what it must be like under such immense financial pressure, I think it's very easy to understand why we have so many marriages that fail.”

In an article in the Daily Mail, James Chapman comments on a study by former Inland Revenue consultants Don Draper and Leonard Beighton, working for CARE. He concludes: "Among highly developed economies, the UK is almost alone in operating a tax system that ignores spousal obligations."


Professor Rowthorn is quoted as saying: "The system is resented because it is so biased against one-earner couples who wish to look after their own children. There is growing recognition that it penalises stable couples and encourages family breakdown and un-partnered childbearing."

Therefore, in so far as Martin Narey’s theory is correct in pointing to poverty being the cause of family breakdown, it is the bias against marriage in the tax and benefit systems that is bringing about much of the poverty, in addition to inherently unstable “unpartnered childbearing” and childrearing.

In a later article [2nd March 2008], also in the Daily Mail, Steve Doughty reported that Don Draper “examined the income of 98 theoretical couples with different incomes ranging from basic benefits to more than £46,000 a year.”


“His report took into account benefits, rent or mortgage payments, and whether a missing father is paying maintenance. Checks of family entitlements against tax and benefit tables used by the Department for Work and Pensions showed that 75 of the 98 families would be better off apart than together. The analysis - which also took into account the additional costs of running two homes - showed that on average the premium for living apart would be £69. A similar study last year found 71 couples out of 98 would be worse off and the extra cost of living together averaged £63. The worst affected families were those where only one partner worked and the other stayed at home to bring up one child. For them, the extra benefits if the family broke up would be worth £95.62 a week.”

Mr Draper said: "These are very considerable sums for people whose incomes may be less than £300 a week. Breaking the cycle of poverty by encouraging the formation and maintenance of stable families would make a major contribution to reducing long-term poverty. Many social problems seem to have their roots in unstable family structures."

The Labour MP Frank Field has calculated that a single mother with two children under 11 on the minimum wage received tax credits that took her weekly income to £487 if she worked only 16 hours a week. A two-parent family with one earner would have had to put in 116 hours of work on the same pay to get the same money.

CARE's report said the extra cost to the Treasury of a couple choosing to stay apart to claim more benefits this year - of whom there are 1.2million - will average £7,732.

Let’s hope Martin Narey – “an independent, expert voice” - looks first at the numbers with a dispassionate eye.

At much the same time [4th March 2008], the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Rev Jonathan Gledhill accused politicians of failing the nation's children by conducting an experiment to "downgrade" marriage.


He says the "great British experiment to downgrade marriage and the family" was showing no sign of running out of steam.

"Our legislators have got a bit careless and they've not noticed that some of the things they've done have not helped home life in our country.

"The tax system works so that if you get married you are penalised.

“We have been dismantling the institution of marriage and saying to our young people it doesn't really matter if you get married."

It is good to see a public figure like the bishop engaging in this important debate. Thus far it has been like a “phoney war” with very few prominent figures willing to enter it. The result has been that the "great British experiment to downgrade marriage and the family" has continued almost unchecked and without serious debate.

There was a debate in House of Lords on Thursday, 28 February 2008 on “Families, Community Cohesion and Social Action”, but not a single male Conservative peer participated.

In an article in the Guardian, “Marital splits are still costly for mothers” by John Carvel, social affairs editor, Wednesday March 5, 2008:


Dr Paul Dornan, the head of policy and research for the Child Poverty Action Group, said: "Some have argued the tax credit system somehow incentivises parents to live apart, but that argument is hollow - mothers are worse off after relationship breakdown."

No doubt mothers are worse off after relationship breakdown, but it doesn’t alter the fact that many separated parents receive in total more money through the tax and benefit systems than married couples living together. The question is, “is it fair and sensible for the state to give more money to people raising children apart than those who opt to stay together despite their difficulties?”

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