Why marriage must be central to any policy on poverty

The Church of England has asked local and national organisations to submit a poverty strategy. This is our response. Marriage as a Social Justice

The Church of England has asked local and national organisations to submit a poverty strategy. This is our response.

Marriage as a Social Justice Buffer against Child Poverty

Harry Benson, Research Director, Marriage Foundation

March 2021


SUMMARY

Marriage is a social justice issue. It bonds couples together. It provides the strongest platform of reliability and stability from which families can maximise their resources of love, time, potential, abilities and finances. It boosts well-being and it buffers against poverty.

And yet the poorest are dissuaded from marriage by a public indifference to marriage by policymakers, who embrace it in their private lives, and to perverse incentives in government welfare policy – a ‘couple penalty’ – that actively discourage marriage or indeed any kind of formal commitment.

The result is a growing ‘marriage gap’ between rich and poor that leads to unnecessarily high levels of family breakdown, especially among the poorest who need stability most.

This paper aims to make the case for how and why marriage best provides the stability that buffers against the risk of family breakdown and so often poverty in turn.

Empirical support for the benefits of marriage as both social enabler and social buffer chime deeply with biblical principles.

In a fallen world of fallible human beings, reliable love is most likely to be found where parents express their commitment to one another through marriage.

When couples split up, family resources become diluted. Even if most parents do a heroic job on their own, lone parent families are especially vulnerable to poverty.

We will never get to grips with poverty until we acknowledge the role of family stability and we rediscover our enthusiasm and confidence in marriage specifically.

I conclude with two key policy proposals:

  • An urgent encouragement to church leadership to act fearlessly as champions of marriage and challenger of government.
  • A proposal to establish a Number Ten Family Policy Unit that champions and disseminates the evidence base for building stronger families.

 


MARRIAGE, FAMILY BREAKDOWN AND POVERTY

Back in 2008, the Department for Work and Pensions published the final report from its longitudinal Families and Children Survey. [1]

With great clarity, the findings highlighted the impact of family breakdown on poverty.

As many as half of all lone parents live in the bottom income quintile, in workless households, or supported by benefits, whereas the equivalent proportion of couple parents is in low single figure percentages.

For example, lone parents were 12 times more likely to be on income support compared to couple parents, 8 times more likely to have nobody working in the household, 8 times more likely to receive council tax benefit, and 7 times more likely to receive housing benefit. An astonishing 97 per cent of lone parents received tax credits compared to 73 per cent of couple parents.

Disentangling the link between poverty and family breakdown is difficult because of the obvious two-way effect: family breakdown causes poverty but poverty also causes family breakdown.

However five years earlier, before government edict blurred the distinction between married and cohabiting families [2], the FACS report identified cohabiting (rather than being married) as one of only a handful of factors independently associated with family breakdown, even after taking into account family hardship and other factors. [3]

This evidence alone, from the government’s own surveys and analysis, should provide sufficient evidence of a clear connection between marriage and cohabitation, family breakdown and alarming rates of poverty.

EXISTING POLICY

Whether through fear of being accused of judging lone parents or couples who are not married, or through blindness to the research evidence, politicians – and even some influential church leaders – have been hesitant to back marriage, with honourable exceptions. [4]

Ironically many of these policy makers fit comfortably into the higher income group among whom marriage remains very much the norm. For example, my recent review finds that 85% of current Cabinet members are married for the first time. The Prime Minister is a notable exception.

The tragedy is that the poorest have listened to policy makers.

Since the 1970s when 95 per cent of all parents were married, a ‘marriage gap’ has opened up between rich and poor. Today, marriage remains the norm in the top social classes where 75 per cent of births are to parents who are married. However in the lower social classes, just 35 per cent of new parents are married. [5]

Despite the research evidence outlining the advantage of marriage to family outcomes (see below), government policy continues to conflate marriage and unmarried cohabitation as if they are the same. They are not. For example, Universal Credit does not distinguish between married couples and those ‘living together as a married couple’. Government-sponsored research, such as the FACS mentioned previously, frequently combines married and cohabiting parents into a single term ‘couple parents’.

The single biggest policy barrier to marriage is the way the welfare system penalises couples who choose to formalise their commitment by living together and getting married. This is known as the ‘couple penalty’.

Although a previous government belatedly introduced a married couple allowance, worth £250 per year to some couples, the welfare system – tax credits or universal credit – consistently penalises couples who choose to live together or get married by as much as £8,293 for couples with one child and up to £11,123 for couples with two children. [6]

Some argue that this ‘couple penalty’ is largely offset by the additional housing costs for parents who live apart.[7] However the temptation is for parents to pretend to live apart and still claim the additional tax credits or universal credit. Following our analysis in 2012 that at least 240,000 couples were pretending to live apart, HMRC revealed that they were investigating over 100,000 cases of potential fraud. [8]

Government family policy is perverse and destructive. Pay low income couples a few hundreds if they marry but several thousands if they live apart, or pretend to live apart. Either way, the cost of getting married means taking a huge ongoing financial hit.

THE MECHANICS OF MARRIAGE AND COMMITMENT

It is as if there is a spiritual blindness that makes policymakers, and even church leaders, hesitant about discussing marriage in public yet enthusiastic about embracing it in private.

For the church, the biblical basis for marriage is rooted in the model in Genesis chapter two. The covenant agreement between two potential parents expressly involves an exchange of identity from two people into ‘one flesh’. And in Ephesians chapter five, Paul compares the role of husband and wife as mirroring the relationship between Jesus and the church. [9]

For researchers and policymakers, these models are strongly supported in modern commitment theory and in empirical data on family outcomes.

Commitment comprises two factors, the internal bond of ‘dedication’ and the outer bond of ‘constraints’. [10]

‘Dedication’ is the inner bond that reflects the extent to which couples have decided and agreed to commit to a future for themselves as a couple. Its most extravagant expression comes through the act of marriage, where couples have decided they want to spend the rest of their life together, have removed any lingering ambiguity or doubt, have made their plan public in front of friends and family. This exchange of identity mirrors a biblical covenant agreement.

Couples can of course take on these ingredients for success without getting married. However whereas the act of marriage necessarily includes them by definition, living together without any formal agreement includes them as options.

‘Constraints’ are the outer bonds that provide external stability and make it hard to leave the relationship should either party wish to do so. These include living together, having children together, and sharing a history together. The most plausible explanation for higher break-up rates among cohabiting couples – and even couples who marry after their baby is born – is that constraints provide an ‘inertia’ that encourages couples to ‘slide’ through relationship transitions as an inevitability, rather than something they both ‘decide’ they want to do.

Timing matters. Ideally, dedication (the mutually agreed plan) should precede constraints (each relationship transition). However when couples cohabit, they are often putting the constraint of living together before the act of dedication. Couples then fail to elucidate their plan, get stuck in a state of ‘inertia’, and eventually split up because they feel trapped. [11]

Several studies suggest that the willingness of men in particular to make a decision and to sacrifice is linked to commitment. [12] There is an obvious parallel with the biblical model here.

MARRIAGE AND STABILITY

Study after study finds that couples who marry – on average – are more likely to stay together and their children tend to have better outcomes. [13]

For example, in several analyses I have done for Marriage Foundation with my colleague Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln, we have shown that being married before a baby is born plays a major role in whether the parents are together up to fourteen years later. [14]

We have also shown that whether parents marry and whether or not they stay together plays a leading role in whether their teenagers subsequently experience mental health problems. [15]

Sceptics of marriage often claim the reason married families tend to have better outcomes is down to selection factors, i.e. the ‘kind of people who marry’. In other words, married families do well because they are older or better off or advantaged in some other way. Whilst this selection effect is real in part, it does not explain the outstanding differences.

All of our studies take these factors into account so that we are comparing parents and children of similar age, education, ethnicity and religion. Even in our analyses where we include relationship happiness, levels of conflict as a new parent, and whether or not the birth was planned – factors that may well be influenced by marriage anyway – we still find marriage to be the biggest, or one of the biggest, factors in whether parents stay together or not. [16]

Ultimately marriage sceptics fail to acknowledge how powerfully each of the individual ingredients of marriage changes our attitude and behaviour in other areas of life.

Making a decision changes the way we think and behave, as does making a plan, or signalling clear intent, or removing ambiguity, or gaining the public affirmation, support and approval of friends and family. These are the ingredients of marriage.

Likewise, sceptics fail to acknowledge how a change in circumstances, such as living together, creates an inertia that can make us put up with less than we might have been willing to accept before that change. These are the ingredients of cohabitation.

The act of marriage makes couples behave differently.

A MARRIAGE-BASED POLICY TO REDUCE CHILD POVERTY

Until government accepts the central role of marriage in promoting stability and reducing family breakdown, any policy on child poverty is fundamentally flawed.

  • Our primary recommendation is to church leadership to champion marriage with far greater freedom and confidence and to challenge the government on its perverse welfare incentives for families to commit fraud and to avoid formal commitment.
  • Our second recommendation is to propose the creation of a Number Ten Family Policy Unit with the following roles:

 

First, a Number 10 Family Policy Unit should encourage the development of UK research into mainstream family stability, instability, and its consequences.

A genuine family policy needs to be rooted in robust evidence. Alas the UK research base into family stability is almost non-existent, aside from a handful of think-tanks. The vast majority of what we know about relationships and their outcomes comes from US research and journals.

Second, a Number 10 Family Policy Unit should look at how government policy encourages or discourages couples to make clear decisions about their future and to formalise those decisions.

Examples include the extension of civil partnerships, the effect of marriage-like rights for cohabiting couples, and the effect of the couple penalty on stability.

Third, a Number 10 Family Policy Unit should have the key role of giving senior ministers the confidence to promote clarity of commitment – and therefore marriage and civil partnerships – as the centre-piece of a bold new family policy that boosts the odds of stability.

Policymakers need the confidence to base their public policy on the same principles most of them apply in private.


Harry Benson is Research Director for Marriage Foundation, a national charity set up by former high court judge Sir Paul Coleridge in 2012 to act as a champion for marriage and commitment. Harry has taught evidence-based relationship programmes to thousands of couples and now works with some of the world’s top social science researchers. Marriage Foundation findings have made front page news and are routinely cited in the media and by politicians.


[1] Maplethorpe et al (2010). Families with Children in Britain: Findings from the 2008 Families and Children Study (FACS). DWP RR 656

[2] Women & Equalities Unit (2003) Responses to Civil Partnership: A framework for the legal recognition of same sex couples, DTI, page 41

[3] Marsh & Perry (2003) Family change 1999 to 2001. DWP research no 181. CDS: Leeds.

[4] Benson (2017). ‘Marriage-rich’ Cabinet need to back marriage. Cambridge: Marriage Foundation

[5] Benson (2021) Will cheaper weddings bridge the marriage gap? Romford: Marriage Foundation.

[6] www.gov.uk/universal-credit/what-youll-get

[7] Hirsch (2012) Does the tax and benefit system create a ‘couple penalty’? Joseph Rowntree Foundation

[8] Benson (2013). A marriage tax break must counter the crazy incentive for parents to ‘pretend to live apart’. Cambridge: Marriage Foundation.

[9]  New International Version. (2011). BibleGateway.com

[10] Stanley et al (2006), Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect. Family Relations

[11] Knopp et al (2015). Stuck on you: How dedication moderates the way constraints feel. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships

[12] Rhoades et al (2006) Pre-engagement cohabitation and gender asymmetry in marital commitment. Journal of Family Psychology; Whitton et al (2007). If I help my partner, will it hurt me? Perceptions of sacrifice in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

[13] DeRose et al (2017) The cohabitation go-round: Cohabitation and family instability across the globe. New York: Social Trends Institute

[14] Benson & McKay (2018). Family planning. Cambridge: Marriage Foundation

[15] Benson & McKay (2017). Family breakdown and teenage mental health. Cambridge: Marriage Foundation

[16] Benson & McKay (2016). Does religion help couples stay together? Cambridge: Marriage Foundation