This week’s Autumn Statement will focus attention on benefits: the Chancellor has already called for additional cuts of £10.5 billion. Is the welfare state providing an adequate safety net for families – or is poverty about more than money?
A recently-opened consultation on measuring poverty proposes three new family-based measures: family stability, parental skills and parental health. These measures matter because they create incentives for the Government to create the conditions for improvement in these areas. That should ultimately help to address the overriding family policy problem: family breakdown.
Save the Children has claimed the welfare state is failing to provide an adequate safety net. Others are more supportive of an approach to tackling poverty that goes beyond financial assistance. The former chair of the End Child Poverty coalition, Martin Narey, refers to the ‘poverty of aspiration, education and parenting’.
While education reform is indispensable to improving social mobility, research published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society shows that only 20 per cent of variability in a pupil’s achievement is attributable to school quality. The remaining 80 per cent is explained by pupil-level factors – particularly family influence.
Despite such findings the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has highlighted the lack of a comprehensive body of family policy – and that contradicts the Coalition’s pledge to build the most family-friendly society in the world.
Better parental leave and help for 120,000 ‘troubled families’ will be inadequate to address our eye-wateringly high levels of family breakdown.
The scale of the issue – a neglected driver of child poverty in the UK – was recently highlighted in Understanding Society data (see Figure 1). While more than 80 per cent of new-borns live with both their birth parents, this is true for only 55 per cent of 15 year-olds. Almost half of the UK’s children will no longer be living with both their mother and father by the time they are on the cusp of adulthood.
As 92 per cent of single parent households are headed by women, father absence is a significant and neglected policy issue. One commentator has noted that by the end of childhood a youngster is considerably more likely to have a television in his room than a father living at home.
Of course the majority of children of separated parents see them both, but over a quarter no longer have contact after three years. There are practical and financial implications of being raised more or less by one parent, but those who do not know their fathers also suffer other adversities.
Children are far more likely to suffer feelings of abandonment and insecurity about their fathers’ love after family breakdown. Research on the social determinants of health shows supportive relationships are ‘health assets’ which improve children’s mental and physical health – and continue to do so as they become adults.
By measuring cortisol levels in thousands of 60 year olds, researchers at the International Centre for Life Course Studies found long-term effects of psychological stress in childhood. Parental separation was associated with higher cortisol levels and thus with a less healthy stress response several decades later in adulthood.
Quality of relationships matter, too; but it’s easy to overlook the fact that fathers’ relationships with their children are strongly influenced by how well they get on with those children’s mothers, whether or not they are still living together.
That’s why ‘full spectrum’ relationship support should be a far greater priority of the Government. This could/should include:
- Relationship ‘tips’ at times of pressure and transition
- E.g. when couples are preparing to be new parents, in order to raise awareness of how to cope with pressures on their ability to get along well together
- Embedding this in ante-natal provision helps prepare people for the dip in relationship satisfaction that tends to accompany extreme fatigue and fluctuating hormones;
- Relationship support when couples are experiencing moderate challenges and counselling to help them overcome severe difficulties;
- Guidance and help to keep children’s best interests the main priority if parents do split up.
YouGov polling indicates that this issue exercises the public greatly: 75 per cent think fatherlessness is a serious problem. And other Government-backed research found that ninety per cent of mothers consider it ‘important’ that a child grows up living with both parents, 60 per cent consider it ‘very important’.
We should soon find out what progress is already being made: the Social Justice Cabinet Committee is measuring the proportion of families which are stable and free from breakdown, and looking at what proportion of those families have good-quality relationships.
The high levels of family breakdown in the UK suggest this is a cultural issue which needs a range of different policy levers and vocal prioritisation by Government. At the CSJ, we believe the current Government’s efforts are dwarfed by the scale and cost of the problem – and what they are doing is one of Whitehall’s best-kept secrets.
Dr Samantha Callan is Chairman in Residence for early years, family law and mental health at the Centre for Social Justice.