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Kathy Gyngell: Killed with kindness. Our tax and childcare policies are destroying marriage and hurting young people

Kathy Gyngell is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

Screen shot 2013-07-15 at 18.09.27A few weeks ago an American commentator, Philip Cohen, said it was about time that public policy caught up with the reality that fewer and fewer children are being raised in homes with two parents.  Since the decline of marriage was universal, he said, and, in America, would hit zero on current trends in 2042, we should learn to live without it.

What we must do instead, he said, is to reduce the disadvantages to those who are not married – or whose parents are not married.

We know what that means, this side of the Atlantic.  It means the state becoming the great provider and taking over the family’s role and responsibilities. It means a bottomless pit of cash benefits and tax transfers in favour of maternal employment, childcare support and childcare services, to square a circle that can never be squared.

But if Mr Cohen came over  here he would see that ‘disadvantage reduction’ policies such as these never catch up with (or make good) marriage decline because they continue to drive it. So  should he want to bring his USA 2042 projection forward, he need look no further than to copy us.

For the evidence is building here that the draining-away of resources by the state from market based solutions to work /family life, from recognising the family’s responsibility for bringing up children through tax allowances to the state’s alternative provision - interventions and direct controls – is exactly what has put the UK on its particularly critical marriage termination path.

It is true, as Mr Cohen points out, that marriage rates have fallen across all OECD countries. But what he ignores is that legal marriage is still by far the most common adult relationship. Indeed some countries’ marriage rates have actually gone up in recent years and others – including the USA – were always keener to head up the aisle than others in the first place.

It is the UK that has become the marriage decline outlier.  In 2009, the most recent year for which it is possible to compare US and UK statistics (using OECD and Eurostat data and methodology), the UK’s crude marriage rate of 4.43 was nearly three points lower than the US rate of 7.31.  (The crude marriage rate is the total population divided by the number of marriages.

The UK rate of decline is steeper too – since 1970 marriage has decreased by 48 per cent compared with 31 per cent in the  US.  When it comes to comparing our decline with the OECD overall, the UK’s decrease of 48 per cent is significantly higher than the average 38.5 per cent, That’s why it is a mistake to dismiss UK decline as just part of a universal cultural phenomenon.  The stats suggest it is quite a specific one – mimicking (but worse than) the ‘coming apart’ of those who do and those who don’t marry in America.

For, just as in the USA, the traditional social norm of marriage has been maintained at the top, educated, end of UK society.  At the bottom though the work ethic and married family life have crumbled. According to an analysis of the available UK data by Neil O’Brien – the Number 10 policy advisor – this divide has happened astonishingly rapidly in the UK.  Having children inside marriage is not only no longer the norm at the bottom of society, it is increasingly rare.  At the top end marriage rates have barely changed.

He says children of lower social class men were just over a fifth less likely to be born into a married couple in 1988 than children in the top social class. Since then the habits of the classes have diverged quite radically. By 2010, children in the top social class were twice as likely to be born to a married couple as children in the bottom social group.

Neil suspects the data above is a reasonable proxy for wider family instability in the UK. This we know to be one of the highest in the developed world.  It is characterised by lone parents ending up in poverty, cohabiting couples more likely to split up, and their children doing less well on nearly every indices of happiness, health and success than those of married couples’ children (independent of socio-economic status). I am sure he is right.


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