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Marriage in modern Britain: out of reach, not out of fashion

A new report from Civitas, ‘Second Thoughts on the Family’, finds marriage to be more popular than ever – but a luxury beyond the reach of the poor

Overwhelming majority of Britons want to marry

Defying the idea that marriage is dead, a new Civitas/Ipsos Mori survey of 1,560 young people reveals that the overwhelming majority want to get married:

Marriage: fit for purpose in 21st century Britain

  • A nationally representative sample of 20-35 year-olds shows that seven in ten want to marry
  • Cohabitation has NOT replaced marriage: nearly eight in ten (79 per cent) of those cohabiting want to marry
  • The number one reason why young people want to marry is to make a commitment (47 per cent)
  • Just two per cent want to marry for tax reasons
  • Less than one per cent think that marriage jeopardises equality between men and women.

Declining marriage rates are seen as a sign of the death of marriage, but the evidence that the majority still want to marry, despite it no longer being socially ‘necessary’, shows that marriage is in fact more popular than ever. In a secular, liberal society such as 21st century Britain, marriage has become a choice – which research shows most people want to make.

People don’t have to marry – they want to

‘In the past people had to marry,’ comments Anastasia de Waal, author of the report and Head of Family and Education at Civitas, ‘today people want to.’ However, family patterns shown in the last Census and Millennium Cohort Study reveal that marriage is out of reach for Britain’s poorest.

In Second Thoughts on the Family Anastasia de Waal has brought together:

  • 27 interviews with high profile opinion formers, including Cherie Booth, Harriet Harman, Polly Toynbee, Jenni Murray, Esther Rantzen and Fay Weldon
  • A nationwide sample of 20-35 year-olds’ attitudes to marriage
  • An examination of Britain’s family trends.

The report demonstrates a striking relationship between income and family structure and exposes a shocking poverty divide between the marrieds and the non-marrieds: it is the divide between the haves and have-nots. Perversely, Labour is embracing this divide in the name of ‘diversity’.

‘Diversity’ – as enjoyed by the poor

  • The Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally representative survey of the families of children born around the year 2000, reveals the stark correlation between economics and family structure in Britain today.

At the time of birth, 55 per cent of single parents and 43 per cent of cohabiting parents lived indisadvantaged areas compared with 26 per cent of married parents. By contrast, 35 per cent of single parents and 56 per cent of cohabiting parents lived in advantaged areas compared with 68 per cent of married parents.

  • The 2001 Census also highlights the correlation between poverty and non-marriage, showing that areas in Britain with the highest proportion of cohabiting parents are ‘notorious for the economic breakdown of once thriving working-class industries’. By contrast, marriage is concentrated in areas with high numbers of middle-class families.

Policy makers out of touch

Both the Conservatives and Labour assume that those people not living in married two-parent families are simply choosing not to. The Conservative Party therefore believes that the two-parent family needs promoting by financial incentives to marry, while Labour, has adopted a ‘neutral’ position in which family structure doesn’t matter. Both parties are out of touch with reality:

  • Marriage doesn’t need incentivising. Most people already want to marry – research shows that more employment, not tax-breaks, will enable them to. Pressurising people to marry will not stabilise the family in the absence of the circumstances conducive to commitment. Marriage signals, rather than generates, commitment.
  • Structure should matter to Labour. Owing to economic obstacles, people who are poor and unemployed are considerably more likely to be unmarried and separated.

Reactionary Labour

Anastasia de Waal argues that while Labour thinks it is being liberal, its position on the family is actually highly conservative.

Its policy is currently determined not by its own priorities, but by Conservative policy and past notions of the repressive ‘traditional’ family. Labour therefore considers family structure to be solely Conservative moralising territory and marriage irrelevant to 21st century policymaking.

Instead, the government has focused on celebrating so-called ‘diversity’. But Labour’s nominally inclusive stance is actually blurring the lines between the poor family and what Labour imagines to be the ‘modern’ family:

‘What are construed [by Labour] as positive manifestations of diversity are in fact very often negative manifestations of deprivation and limiting circumstances. This is not to deny that new opportunities to end unhappy relationships and a greater freedom of choice in family life have positively affected families right across the socio-economic spectrum. However, non-marriage and parental separation in the UK today disproportionately represent the problematic, as opposed to the progressive, elements of family diversity.’ [p.5]

Labour must recognise the significance of family structure

Labour’s misjudged resistance to acknowledging the importance of family structure is undermining its equalising agenda, perpetuating inequality between both the classes and the sexes. The significance of structure is imperative to:

  • 1. Tackling ‘structural poverty’
    Lower marriage rates and greater numbers of cohabitating parents are strongly connected to what Anastasia de Waal terms ‘structural poverty’, that is, unemployment-related poverty incurring further poverty through parental separation. The relationship between unemployment and parental separation is hugely significant because child poverty in Britain is concentrated in single-parent households.

    Child poverty is a central priority for Labour, yet the government is failing to acknowledge the circumstances giving rise to parental separation and subsequent single parenthood.

    A child born to cohabiting parents is nearly twice as likely to see his/her parents break-up before his/her sixteenth birthday than a child born to married parents. The unmarried parent is therefore more likely to become the single parent.

    Labour must finally tackle the issue of NEETs – young people not in education, employment and training – which is exacerbating family poverty. Almost a fifth of school leavers today are unemployed, a 15 per cent rise in the last ten years. The effect on families is an increased risk that young women and men enter into parenthood in unstable circumstances.

  • 2. Fostering equality in parenting between men and women
    There is currently a very narrow-conservative-conceptualisation by Labour as to what is meant by attaching importance to family structure and the two-parent family. Structure ought to refer as much to the parenting model as to the relationship between parents. For this reason it would be useful to stop talking about family breakdown and start talking about parental separation-and single parenting instead of lone parenting. The household may split, but the family unit-the parenting structure-should remain intact.

    One of the main reasons that the children of separated families are more likely to suffer difficulties is because the two-parent structure in terms of responsibility – the dual-parenting – breaks down.

    Labour’s treatment of fathers as ‘optional extras’ is exacerbating difficulties for women and children. Whilst the aim has been to be non-judgemental to mothers and children in separated families, in reality the effect has been to legitimise irresponsible fathers.

Policy recommendations

  • The current emphasis on women in every area of policy affecting the family should be reformed in favour of equal responsibility. Family policy must include men, starting from childcare to the position that even if the relationship between adults ends, the responsibilities towards children don’t.
  • Child poverty is strongly connected to the failure of non-resident parents to contribute financially. Child maintenance should be automatically taken out of wages or social assistance through HM Revenue and Customs, regardless of income.

Notes to editors:

  • i. Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. ‘Second Thoughts on the Family’ by Anastasia de Waal is published by Civitas (www.civitas.org.uk) at £11.75 inc. pp. Tel 020 7799 6677.
  • ii. Interviewees include: Cherie Booth, Harriet Harman, Polly Toynbee, Esther Rantzen, Jenni Murray, Fay Weldon, Anthony Giddens, Peter Tatchell, Charles Murray, Michael Lamb, Terri Apter, Susie Orbach, Linda Papadopoulos, Jenny Watson, Jo Elvin, Marie O’Riordan, Deidre Sanders, Virginia Ironside, Libby Brooks, Kate Bell, Linda Bellos, Annette Brooke, Tim Loughton, Deborah Joseph, Kate Green, Duncan Fisher, Sue Burridge.

For more information ring:
Anastasia de Waal 020 7799 6677 (w) or 07930 354234 (m)

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