One of the most important parts of social policy is understanding the importance of the many institutions that exist between the individual and the state, and working with, nurturing and encouraging them where needed. Arguably the most important of these institutions was rightly highlighted in the abortive leadership campaign of Andrea Leadsom: the family. There is mounting evidence that, being the foremost source of basic structure, discipline, support and loving guidance that human beings require, a strong family is from the very first day vital in providing greater life chances.
This is clearest in the experiences of those without a family, raised in the care system. As much anecdotal evidence as I could bring to bear – from sources as diverse as the Spectator and the Guardian – it won’t be necessary. Over 60 years of research has been done showing overwhelmingly that the care system as is sees children locked in a cycle of abandonment as carers change – impacting on brain development in the very young, and on social and behavioural development in older children. It has a negative impact on health, development and life chances, along with greater risk of physical or sexual abuse. Clearly, then, being raised in a family is preferable.
The stability of that family is important, however. A recent paper by David Autor adds to much previous research showing that children raised in two parent households are less likely to commit serious crimes as juveniles, show lower rates of behavioural and cognitive disability and are more likely to graduate from high school – with boys especially benefitting from having two parents. Further research by the AEI shows that higher rates of marriage in American states are linked to higher growth, median family income, and upward mobility for poorer children, plus markedly lower child poverty. This is true even controlling for the educational composition of a state, its tax policies and spending on education.
The Centre for Social Justice has also extensively documented the issue of family breakdown in the UK. Children from broken homes are not just more likely to be in poverty, but more likely to stay in poverty, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes, to run up debts, to suffer from mental issues and to create new broken homes in a vicious cycle of brokenness. It bears out even controlling for class, race and education: a child born in poverty in a broken home is far less likely to leave poverty than a child born in poverty in a stable home.
This wreaks especial havoc on poor communities, where family breakdown is far more common, and it is a trend that has gotten relentlessly worse regardless of the level of social spending. It is of course no fault of single parents, who do their best and often do very well, but one person cannot be two. Reducing unemployment and welfare dependency are key parts of reducing meaningful poverty, and enormous progress has been made on these fronts, but any coherent poverty agenda must include a serious strategy to halt and reverse the trend towards higher levels of family breakdown.
It isn’t just the children, the poor and the economy who suffer from family breakdown: the increase in divorce and separation means more people living alone, which is among the greatest demographic pressures on housing, far greater than immigration. This upward pressure on house prices would be attenuated if fewer families split, yet another reason that a strategy to shore up the family is called for.
If this strategy is to survive in the modern milieu it cannot be seen as an exclusivist heterosexual affair. Leaving aside entirely the uproar such an approach would cause, research usually shows that two parent same-sex households provide similar benefits to two parent opposite-sex household. Homosexual couples are also far more likely to adopt, providing enormous benefits to a number who would otherwise be in far worse state, and in this day and age can bear children of their own, who can reap the rewards of a two-parent, stable home just as much as the children of a heterosexual couple. Indeed, homosexual marriage and homosexual families should be seen as an opportunity and a blessing, not a threat, for family advocates
In terms of content, it could include steps to make marriage more financially attractive such as increasing the Marriage Allowance and altering the incentives in the welfare system. Policies to help provide stability and support to new parents could also play a part, for instance increasing access to counselling and support for new parents, having more on parenting and sustaining healthy relationships in sex education, and converting the current 30 hours of free childcare into a system of vouchers for childcare-related goods and services, extending the benefits to a far greater variety of families.
Reforms of the justice system to reduce the impact of incarceration on families, like those Gove has pursued, would also play a part. Policies to smoothen and strengthen the adoption and fostering processes, like those outlined in detail by the CSJ, must also be a pillar of this strategy, ensuring as many children in the care system as possible are, ideally within the critical first two years of life, given the improved life chances that come with a family. These prescriptions are certainly not exhaustive, merely illustrative of the possibilities.
Sustained advocacy, careful research and bold policies are required, and it be many years before the fruits bloom in full, but what fruits they will be. The potential benefits for the worst off among us, for mental health, for social mobility, for the economy and for the social fabric as a whole are colossal. In putting family back on the agenda Leadsom has done us all a great service, because the most important step, paving the way for all others, is remembering that family matters.
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