Three questions all politicians need to answer about family breakdown

This news item comes from “Modern Marriage: the blog of the Marriage Foundation”. For other blog articles, click here. New figures from the 2011

This news item comes from “Modern Marriage: the blog of the Marriage Foundation”. For other blog articles, click here.

New figures from the 2011 Census– released by the Office for National Statistics this morning – continue to underestimate the true extent of family breakdown, although they edge a little closer to reality.

Out of the 6.7 million families with children in England and Wales, 29% are now headed by lone parents, up from 25% during the previous 2001 Census.

However, the number of lone parent families simply represents a snapshot of parents who are currently on their own. Many parents who have split up go on to remarry or repartner along the way.

What’s interesting in these new figures is that we can see how the number of stepfamilies has also changed during the decade. Combining lone and step parent families amounts to 37% of all families, up from 35% a decade earlier.

That gives a better snapshot of overall family breakdown. But even this still understates the true scale of the problem because it spans children of all ages, from families with babies to families with teens.

Our recent analysis of data from the household survey Understanding Society shows that 45% of teens aged 13 to 15 are not living with both natural parents. Family breakdown rates tend to tail off over time after that so the eventual proportion will only end up slightly higher than this.

Still, I think 45% is quite shocking enough. That’s the real scale of the problem.

There’s one other anomaly that shines out from these new figures. Whereas the proportion of married parents who are stepfamilies has remained pretty constant at 9% between 2001 and 2011, the proportion of unmarried parents who are stepfamilies has fallen from 38% to 20%.

So where have all these ‘missing’ unmarried stepfamilies gone? The answer is that they are pretending to be lone parents. And they do this because our perverse tax credit system, introduced in 2003, now pays them up to £7,100 more if they live apart – or pretend to live apart.

Our previous research, using official figures, showed that there are at least 240,000 more people claiming lone parent tax credits than there are lone parents! All of these are couples. So that’s half a million people.

Not only does this disgraceful system incentivise fraud and disincentivise living together, it also actively discourages marriage. Couples can only cheat the tax credit system like this if they’re not married.

Politicians on all sides who think they are doing a good job with their family policies need to answer these three questions:

Are you happy that

(1) 45% of today’s teens have experienced family breakdown?

(2) Family breakdown is still rising?

(3) Your perverse tax credit system pays couples thousands to live apart and not marry?

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