Monday 15 October 2007

Why marriage is best

I was having a discussion with a friend of a friend during a long car journey last weekend, and our conversation fell upon the recent discussions around the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Andy Burnham’s suggestion to incentivise marriage (yet another proposal made by the Conservatives some weeks before the Hon. Minister was able to think the idea up all by himself). My acquaintance made the point that marriage is a social choice and as such, should be subject to the same tax breaks as single individuals and non-married couples, whether cohabiting or otherwise. My counter-claim was that as marriage is generally good for society, the policy discussion is more about a quid pro quo exchange between Government and society than rewarding one set of individuals whose behaviour is somehow deemed to be more socially approved of than anothers.

The arguments that, generally speaking, children brought up within a marital home have better life outcomes is supported by a series of sociological research. Most recently, Patricia Morgan (Senior Research Fellow at the think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs) has attracted the attention of both sides of the debate, with her excellent studies: “Farewell to the Family: Public Policy and Family Breakdown in Britain and the USA” and “Marriage Lite: The Rise of Cohabitation and its Consequences”. Whilst many of the points meticulously analysed by Dr. Morgan will be familiar to the majority of pro-marriage, pro-children apologists, the major point that struck this author was the alarmingly high rate of relationship breakdown among cohabitees following the birth of children and the associated mental and emotional turbulence, often manifesting itself later in life – i.e. when parents may think that the child has “come through it”.

Lets look at the cold, hard facts. Children from homes with both parents are statistically more likely to achieve academically in school, with the associated benefits of greater chances of attending university, than children from broken homes. They are statistically less likely to suffer from depression, self-harm or engage in drug or alcohol abuse. They are statistically less likely to commit crime or serve prison time. In short, marriage offers a priceless emotional stability during a child’s formative years, with varied societal benefits.

Of course, as my acquaintance pointed out, there are the exceptions – “my mother was a single mother, and we’ve done all right!”. No doubt, but equally not relevant. No one is suggesting that every child growing up in a single-parent home will inevitably emerge as a wife-beating terrorist, any more than children born into a married and stable home will automatically be immune to damaging influences. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. But the clear and indisputable facts point to the maxim that marriage is best, not only for the members of the family themsleves, but for wider society. Such policies incentivising marriage are not about penalising single or unmarried parents, but providing recognition and support for an institution that offers such unrivalled and tangible benefits. Polly Toynbee may scowl and grimace, but all the typical hot-air hyperbole does not change that fact.

I could go further in this article – and indeed, have a feeling that this will not be the last time I blog in defence of the oldest social institution – but will restrict myself to one further, somewhat less tangible observation, namely that what is often most frustrating to children of single parents is that the pseudo-liberal commentators decrying the benefits of marriage seem inevitably to have come from comfortable middle-class (married!) backgrounds. In other words, they retain the financial resources to adapt themselves to divorce or separation with the minimum of social upheaval. They are typically insulated from the hard and violent street culture which has claimed so many fatherless young men from deprived backgrounds so alien to their own privileged roots.

Their dismissive attitude towards one of the few lines of defence for working class women and children is not only highly insulting, but downright hypocritical given the fact that they themselves have enjoyed the benefits of a stable, dual-parental upbringing. Or as another commentator puts it, it is so much easier to have a rose-tinted view of single parenthood in the leafy squares of Notting Hill and Islington than in the crumbling high rises of Tower Hamlets and Peckham.

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