One of the remarkable things about research on the family is that studies can start from the same data and reach quite contradictory conclusions. This makes family research a bit like climate change studies, with probably some doctoring of the evidence here and there. On the other hand, while climate data is invisible to most of us and the weather we experience is thoroughly confusing, what is happening to families is out there on the street for all to see.
That is why reports published recently in the United States and Britain basically agree about family trends: fewer people are marrying and more are just living together; divorce rates have (consequently) fallen; around one in four children now lives with a single mother or, sometimes, father; counting step-children, an even higher proportion of children lives apart from their biological father — one in three in the US; fewer children are being born — in Britain the total fertility rate is just under two per women and in the US just over 2.1. These are overall figures; the picture changes significantly for different sub-groups of the population.
When it comes to the question of how society should respond to such trends, however, the reports are poles apart.
The US report, The State of Our Unions 2009: Money and Marriage, comes from a community of academics and scholars committed to strengthening marriage as the basis of family well-being. The two organisations involved are The National Marriage Project (NMP), domiciled at the University of Virginia, and the Centre for Marriage at Institute for American Values. Its monitoring of trends and of specific social pressures — in this case the recession — is geared to correcting trends that break down marriage.
Why? Because the overwhelming weight of evidence, if not common sense, confirms that marriage is the best guarantee of the wellbeing of children and the general health of society.
The UK report, Family Trends: British families since the 1950s, ignores this. It comes from the National Family and Parenting Institute (FPI), which the ever-blunt Daily Mail describes as “a state-financed organisation set up by Labour to speak for parents and children”. It is not committed to marriage but only to “families, in all their diversity”. In other words, it advocates adaptation to family breakdown and social support for parents and children inside or outside marriage, whether they are living together or not.
Here I have to make a confession: while I have read the whole of the State of Our Unions report, which is free, I have not read the whole of Family Trends… which would have cost me £32.50. I did not think it a good investment. However, I have read a summary of the facts in the report and a speech by the new director of FPI, Katherine Rake, given at the launch of the report, and interviews in which she elaborated on her ideas. From all the commentary on it that I have read, I doubt that any journalist has read more.
So what does she have to say?
The death of the family
Dr Rake (she is a social scientist) is convinced that before another 20 years is up there will be no such thing as a “typical family” because “people are constantly redefining what it means to be a family”; even now the “traditional nuclear family… certainly isn’t the norm.”
How will children’s “parenting” needs be met, then? Well, the ageing society will provide a good ratio of grandparents to children, while uncles, aunts, cousins and even siblings can also substitute for mum and/or dad. This rosy spectacle is somewhat undercut by the Trends report which notes the “beanpole” effect of low fertility and ageing: “more generations alive at the same time but with fewer aunts and uncles etc”. And how attached to the children will the ageing parents of the absent parent be?
There will, of course, be a large role for the state and its various agents as they “put resources into supporting couples both when they are together but also when they part”. After all, it is going to take a lot of experts to help couples form “healthy committed relationships” outside marriage as well as within it and to help them “parent effectively” when they split up; and a lot of money to keep non-resident parents in contact with their children when most of them are poor and “do not have the resources — the accommodation or the money — to support two families”. Public funds, by implication, will be limitless.
Even so, says Dr Rake, they should not be squandered on saving marriage: “What policy-makers must not do is fall into the trap of investing large sums of money trying to reverse the tide of trends by trying to encourage more ‘traditional families’.”
What Dr Rake and her colleagues, the Labour government that backs her and all the people who think they can do without marriage fail to appreciate is that marriage is a wealth creating institution — something that the US Marriage and Money report emphasises as background to its investigation of what the effects of the “Great Recession” might be.
This is not the most important value of marriage, of course, but it is a neglected one and paying some attention to it illuminates other issues, so I will stick with it for the remainder of this article.
Fighting poverty with commitment
As the Marriage report points out, US government statistics show that a family of three, two parents and a child, needs an income of US$18,311 to be considered above the poverty line. But, if the parents maintain separate households, the total income needed to keep the three of them out of poverty jumps to $25,401, meaning that the parents must earn 39 per cent more to avoid poverty. Yet it is blue-collar workers and the poor who are disproportionately missing out on marriage; people with higher education and income understand the economics and are the ones who are marrying today.
Ironically, the middle class have less need of marriage for economic reasons, thanks to the earning capacity of women. This has caused a shift in the meaning of marriage towards the “soul mate” model with its emphasis on companionship and communication, income equality and, increasingly, the equal sharing of domestic responsibilities — all kicked off with a hugely expensive wedding.
It is a model that suits those with higher education and income, but it does not come easily to the working class and the poor. For one thing these men have been the most vulnerable to changes in the economy and absorbed 75 per cent of job losses since 2007 — making them less marriageable. It is also harder for those who are married to let go of the breadwinner role: research by National Marriage Project director Professor Brad Wilcox shows that, among couples with children at home, husbands who work less hours than their wives are 61 per cent less likely to report that they are very happy in their marriages compared to men who work as many or more hours than their wife.
The net result of these trends is an increasing divorce rate among working class couples (while divorce is falling higher up the social scale) and the substitution of cohabitation or single parenthood for marriage.
In thrall to the establishment
Dr Rake and company do not want to tell them this is not the answer; they do not want to change social policy so that it gives special recognition and financial advantages to married parents, as the British Conservative Party is promising to do; they would rather spend up large from the public purse to support broken families (“diversity”). Why?
My guess is that Labour politicians are in thrall to the liberal academic establishment and have simply handed over social policy to them. And the academics themselves? In Dr Rake’s case, maybe it has something to do with the fact that her parents divorced and that she is separated from her own husband with whom she has a son, aged four. Beyond that she subscribes to a brand of feminism that aims at strict income and role equality between men and women — this seems to be the drift of her previous job with the Fawcett Society. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the impression that she is not focussed on “families” or children at all, but on women as such.
No-one squarely focussed on the welfare of children — or, indeed, on the happiness of women and men — could reach the conclusion that marriage was dispensable. But, the Marriage report reminds us, it is some time now since our societies were child-centred, as declining birth rates clearly show. If we were to grapple with that phenomenon, we might well see a solution to the problems of marriage in general.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.