If current trends continue, half of British children born this week will see the breakdown of their parent’s relationship before they are 16. Where their parents are not living together when they are born, the break up rate will probably be 60%. The point is not to moralise but to recognise a problem, explore the causes of breakdown and find policies to ease the pressures on families and reverse these trends
Some will refute the suggestion that there is a problem and see these statistics as the result of people rejecting traditional morality and choosing how they will live. Nevertheless, these trends have serious consequences.
Family breakdown is a key driver of poverty, especially for women. When couples split, their income drops on average by more than 10% and half of all single parents are in poverty, struggling with debt problems and welfare dependency. The experience of family breakdown can harm the children involved. Girls from broken homes feature disproportionately in teenage pregnancy statistics. Underachievement at school is another factor, as are drug and alcohol abuse and relationship problems in later life. Family breakdown is not just a personal matter. It adds to the demand for housing and other welfare benefits and services paid for by the taxpayer. It is estimated that family breakdown costs the taxpayer £47 billion.
Relational problems are an obvious cause of family breakdown. These may relate to financial pressures of debt, tax and benefit changes and child care costs. Working long hours and at weekends that leave little time for family doesn’t help. Caring for elderly relatives brings its own pressures, as does living in poor housing or communities with a high incidence of crime.
The Government has tried to tackle some of these problems. The Marriage Couples Allowance lets someone who doesn’t pay income tax transfer £1060 of their personal allowance to their working partner. Critics say this sum should be much higher to make a real difference. Since 2014 Government policies are supposed to be subject to a ‘family test’ but the Opposition argues that policies that see families turning to food banks have failed this test. The Government also initiated a Troubled Families programme to ‘turn around’ 120,000 of the most troubled families by 2015.
The present rate of family breakdown is costly to the individuals involved, especially the children. It costs the State and the taxpayer too much and it threatens the stability of British society. A majority understand this but are not motivated to call for change. Mainstream culture with its emphasis on individualism and consumerist values is a major cause. Relationships are treated like goods and services – ‘if it isn’t working for me I will quit and look for alternatives’. Marriage has become so unnecessarily expensive for many people that lots choose to cohabit rather than marry. The average length of a cohabitating relationship is only 37 months.
Some postmodern secularists actively want to see the end of marriage because of its religious connotations. Religions apart, the evidence is that those who marry are more likely to stay together. 97% of couples who marry are still together when their children reach their 15th birthdays. Given the importance of family and marriage for couples, their children and society, Christians should pray for a wider recognition of this need and wise leadership to bring it about.