26 Sep 2009

Are 'broken families' responsible for 'Broken Britain'? is a good question

Are 'broken families' responsible for 'Broken Britain'? is a good question, asked by Mark Easton, BBC Home Affairs editor, at his blog.

He quotes Iain Duncan Smith, "I have always believed that it would be impossible to prove conclusively that simply having a lone parent effects your outcomes as a child and we have never argued that.”

Dave and Liz Percival make some sensible comments at their Weekly Update of UK Marriage News - No 9.35 20/9/09 which can be found at www.2-in-2-1.co.uk

"At first sight the news that children of single parents do as well as those of married parents, both academically and behaviourally may seem like a real blow to some of the arguments for the “benefits” of marriage..... But dig a little deeper behind the bald headline and one finds an important caveat – singleness is OK as long as it is constant, with no new partners entering the scene.... This poses a dilemma for policy makers – shift policy to make re-partnering of single mums less socially acceptable, or support the formation of the most stable family structure before children are born, and ensure it is supported throughout life. Far from being bad news, this [OECD] study to me seems to point to one of the most compelling arguments why the inherent stability of marriage should be high on society’s agenda – the fluidity of modern “serial relationships” is destroying the lives and futures of our kids."

The argument, “support the formation of the most stable family structure before children are born, and ensure it is supported throughout life” seems convincing to me, along with the argument of the OECD which is 'convinced that giving specific benefits to single parents may make matters worse.' "There is little or no evidence that these benefits positively influence child well-being, while they discourage single-parent employment.

In the UK we have tried giving substantial benefits to 'single' parents – many of whom [up to 200,000 according to Frank Field] are not really 'single' but hostesses of 'guest' [often serial] stepfathers – only to find the lives of the children are disrupted to a much greater extent than if they remained genuinely 'single' mothers. Indeed, the rates of child abuse in such 'families' is significantly higher, some studies indicating 33 times greater.

What we have not tried in the UK is to “support the formation of the most stable family structure before children are born, and ensure it is supported throughout life”. Indeed, the status of married couples has been undermined through both the tax and benefit systems, most particularly that of the poorest married couples.

When the Labour government was elected, the Social Exclusion Unit announced that there were eight indicators of deprivation, one of which was 'family breakdown'. However, when the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit and the ONS published the Neighbourhood Indices of Deprivation in 2001 there were only seven of them, plus an Index of Multiple Deprivation, the omission being 'family breakdown'.

No one has given a satisfactory explanation as to why there is no Neighbourhood Index of Domestic and Social Cohesion, nor have politicians or journalists been sufficiently inquisitive to investigate.

Mark Easton quotes the OECD, "There is little or no evidence that these [single parent] benefits positively influence child well-being.... “ At the start of 2009 a Local [Neighbourhood] Index of Child Well-being was published – though not included in the Index of Multiple Deprivation; this was published through the DCLG which is now responsible for the Indices.

So in future, it should be possible to measure changes in 'child well-being'. But I doubt very much if this government will sanction the publishing of an 'index of domestic and social cohesion' for fear that neighbourhoods with low levels of domestic and social cohesion are shown to be much the same as the neighbourhoods with low levels of child well-being.

And that would never do for HMG, and probably not for the BBC either!