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Optimism renewed: The prospect of a family policy that helps families stay on the ladder?

Some ten years ago, I remember sitting in the audience at a boys club in the east end of London, just feet away from new Tory leader David Cameron as he gave a brilliant note-free inaugural speech. As the world’s press – and I – looked on, he talked passionately of his social justice mission to help those who had fallen off the ladder back on again.

At the time, my colleagues at the Centre for Social Justice were compiling our independent state of the nation report on Breakdown Britain. A year later we produced our proposed policy response in the shape of Breakthrough Britain.

But as I listened to him, I also remember clearly thinking that he only had half of the story.

The other half – arguably the most important half – was to find policies that prevent families falling off the ladder in the first place. Central to this was the role of marriage as the essential glue that helps families stay together, make family life work, keep them safely on the ladder, and avoid the kind of avoidable breakdown that plunges families into poverty, and hence off the ladder.

Toward the end of six years of Cameron government, even my tenacious sense of optimism was running low.

Family policy – to the extent that such thing ever existed during the Cameron years – focused almost exclusively on those who had fallen off the ladder. Government, quite rightly, spends huge sums of taxpayer money picking up the pieces of broken relationships and dysfunctional families – £48 billion at the latest count. As for helping families stay on the ladder, well, there is almost nothing other than a ‘recognition’ of marriage in the tax system. But at £212 and poorly targeted, it is an expensive and ultimately pointless political afterthought to fulfil a manifesto promise from years earlier.

Yet it is with a renewed sense of optimism that I listened to our new prime minister Theresa May. She introduced her new regime with stirring words about fighting the injustice of reduced opportunities but also fighting for the interests of those who are ‘just about managing‘. This sounds much more like a both/and policy, both support for those trying to get onto the ladder and support for those trying desperately to hang on and avoid falling off.

What will help them most?

US Professor Robert Putnam writes of the decline of the American dream in his excellent book ‘Our kids‘. Years ago, kids born on both sides of the social tracks had a chance. Social mobility was good among rich and poor alike. The poor could succeed just as much as the rich. Today, that opportunity has disappeared. In America, the nation has divided into those with a college education, who also marry, and those who don’t.

Today in the UK, my reading of the research is that we face a similar decline in social mobility. Lack of educational opportunity is part of the problem. But family instability is the neglected other half. Half of today’s family breakdown comes not from divorce – which is declining – but from unmarried couples. Our trend away from marriage has produced higher and higher levels of family instability. The key forward indicator of social mobility is births outside of marriage.

It’s no good spending a fortune on mopping up the flood if you don’t pay any attention to turning off the tap.

My hope is that somehow, somewhere, somebody will get through to Prime Minister May about how vital it is that government encourages and incentivises families to embrace commitment and marriage once again. I know Mrs May has heard something of this message already. I sat on a panel with her ten years ago when she was shadow minister for the family.

Today’s teens and young adults overwhelmingly aspire to getting married. Yet only half will achieve that on today’s rates. Among the better off parents, the ‘privileged few’ that includes policymakers, marriage remains the norm. Among the poorest, just one quarter of parents are married.

Our nation is divided between the better-off who stay better-off who commit, marry, remain intact, and retain more resources, and the less well-off who don’t marry, face high levels of break-up and a destruction of their family resources.

The rich marry. The poor don’t. 

Fighting injustices on behalf of families who have fallen off the ladder is part of the equation. Setting policies that improve the stability of families who are ‘just managing’ is the other, arguably more important part. Our new PM talks of both.

So today at least, my sense of optimism is sufficiently renewed that I do not expect to have to write this article again in ten years time!

Now for action …