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Rachel Jenkins

If we want stable families, we must talk about marriage

This Valentine’s Day coincides with new data showing that when it comes to couples splitting up Britain is a world leader. According to the newly updated world family map, a child here is more likely to experience family breakdown than almost anywhere else in the world.

Government policymakers should put their dinner reservations on hold and consider why this really matters. The government’s own data on poverty suggests that when families break up, poverty is often not far behind. When ministers recently looked into the drivers of child poverty they found that growing up in a family that breaks apart doubles the likelihood of a child growing up poor.

Splitting up also makes it harder to hold down work. Government poverty stats reveal that just under half lone-parent families are workless, compared to about 6 per cent of couple families. None of this should surprise anyone. Bringing up children is tough and it’s even harder if you have to do it alone, and harder still to find a job to pay the bills. When it comes to tackling poverty, it’s hard to look beyond the role of the family.

Where we can stabilise family relationships we have a good chance of helping families avoid long term poverty. Despite this the government will spend more this year on repairing church roofs (£20 million) than it will on supporting relationships and helping families stay together (£14 million).

Few families start off this way. In the UK 84 per cent of babies are born to couples. It’s later on that things get tricky and where the government can step in to help couples stay together. When the Centre for Social Justice quizzed attitudes among the public some years ago they found a strong commitment to the government helping families stick together.

More than 80 per cent of parents from social class DE (where levels of family breakdown are highest) agreed that the government is right to say that stability matters for children, and three-quarters of lone parents agree that this is an important message. If family instability is a primary driver of poverty, we need to get serious about stable families, which in turn means getting serious about marriage.

David Cameron blew away the New Labour taboo that a politician shouldn’t talk about the family. As prime minister he was almost zealous in promoting stronger families, at one point describing the family “as the best anti-poverty measure ever invented”. There were few howls of protest when he did. Talking about marriage doesn’t have to be unpopular – after all, more than 75 per cent of young adults actively aspire to it. It would be odd if the government didn’t support this aspiration.

Despite this the government has quietly adopted policy of indifference to family structure. However, figures published alongside the world family map underline the importance of marriage. Three in five (62 per cent) British children born to unmarried parents will experience family breakdown before they hit their teens. A British child born to cohabiting parents is 94 per cent more likely to see their parents break up before they reach their twelfth birthday, compared to a child born to married parents.

Cohabiting is the fastest growing family type in the UK, doubling in the ten years between 1996 to 2016. A government looking to promote family stability would be wrong to be indifferent to all of this. Britain’s cohabiting couples make up a fifth of all couples with dependent children, but nearly half of all family breakdown. If you’re a teenager studying for your GCSEs and you have two parents at home, it is statistically almost certain they will be married.

For a government always on the lookout for burning injustices, few come quite as stark as the figures for couples getting hitched. Poorer children overwhelmingly miss out on the stability of marriage, which is becoming is a middle class preserve. It is disappearing in our poorest areas . Almost 90 per cent of higher earners (over £43,000) marry, compared with only 24 per cent of lower earners (under £16,000).

If couples are willing to making a big, public commitment to each other, the least they deserve is a government which will make a commitment to them. This means ensuring that when the government’s social justice green paper is published in the coming weeks, that marriage doesn’t simply disappear from government policy altogether.

If we have any chance of climbing the family stability league we need to find a new confidence in promoting the most stable form of relationship there is – marriage. We can’t allow marriage to simply become the M word in government policy on supporting families. We need the government to speak up for marriage in its long awaited social justice strategy. The government cannot become a marriage-free zone if it is serious about tackling social injustices. If we want to support stable families, then we need to talk about marriage.