Europe’s marriage gap between rich and poor

Low income parents in Scandinavia are amongst the least likely in Europe to be married, according to new research by Marriage Foundation.

Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have an average of under a third (30 per cent) of poor parents who are married, as compared to the continental average of 43 per cent.

The Mediterranean countries fare best with over half (53 per cent) of low income parents married.

The research reveals for the first time that the so-called ‘marriage gap,’ the difference in marriage take up between the poorest and richest households, is a problem throughout the continent.

The marriage gap is widest in the Scandinavian countries, with 75 per cent of the highest earner parents married compared to only 30 per cent of low earners, a difference of 45 per cent.

The Mediterranean countries have the lowest marriage gap with 53 per cent of low income and 87 per cent of the richest parents married, a difference of only 34 per cent.

A previous study by the Institute for Family Studies have shown that where marriage rates are low, family breakdown is high across Europe. Marriage Foundation research has found that the marriage gap is one of the main drivers of the cycle of social disadvantage.

Harry Benson, research director of Marriage Foundation, commented: “This research shows for the first time that the problem of the marriage gap – where the wealthy perpetuate their wealth and advantage by getting married, while the poorest suffer greater instability by not – is manifest across Europe.

“The evidence to show marriage is the greatest guarantor of family stability is now indisputable. Here in the UK, of the parents who stay together until their child reaches their fifteenth birthday, 93 per cent are married. Committed, stable cohabiting couples are of course just as good as married ones at raising children, but unfortunately they are fleetingly rare.

“The whole of Europe needs to wake up to this phenomenon where the poorest are experiencing family breakdown with ever greater frequency, while the rich elite continue to reap the benefits of stable, married life.”

Sir Paul Coleridge, former High Court judge and chairman of Marriage Foundation, commented: “Following Marriage Foundation’s original research on the UK marriage gap released last year, this new cross European data is at once interesting and alarming. Interesting because it shows that all of Europe has a significant problem in this area. Britain is about average. Alarming because when the figures are examined more closely it seems there is a significant discrepancy between countries which are regarded superficially as very similar.

“The Scandinavian models are always held up as best for education, social mobility and general quality of life, but family stability is clearly a big exception. Their low rates of marriage among the poor lead inevitably to higher rates of family breakdown.

“The Mediterranean countries meanwhile have long been known for their healthy diets and good work-life balance. Now we know another secret of their success: the majority of both rich and poor commit to stable, life-long married relationships so their children enjoy the very real advantage of stability.

“The traumatic effects of family breakdown, wherever it is found, should not be underestimated. Whether through the psychological impact of parental separation or the loss of contact with one parent, children living in lone parent families tend to fare worst on almost any negative social indicator. They are more likely to be truant from school, suffer mental health problems, miss out on higher education and obtain less well-paid employment. The children of married parents, on the other hand, have the highest levels of self-esteem as out recent research demonstrated.

“Social inequality is quite rightly regarded as a real problem calling for urgent action. Surely no European government or political party serious about combatting this mischief can afford to ignore the rising tide of family breakdown particularly in the poorest families.”


Here you can download the Research Briefing Paper as a PDF and the Press Release where it is available.

Media Links

Family Studies, 11th August 2016
By Harry Benson: The marriage gap in Europe

Mercator Net, 17th August 2016
By Carolyn Moynihan: For the richer, not the poorer: marriage as a class affair

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