Happy families: a game of charades

Divorce, single mothers, social breakdown - the doomsayers ignore historical and current evidence

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On one thing most politicians and social theorists agree - family breakdown is A Bad Thing and Something Must Be Done. The right call for a return to lifelong fetters in divorce law, the left for counselling and mediation. Some look westwards for their social inspiration and call for birth outside wedlock (among the poor and genetically challenged) to be punished by a variety of Dickensian measures, mothers locked up in barracks, their offspring in orphanages.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation publishes a major study this Friday on family disruption. Breakdown, of course, is an evil, whether it is cars, talks or marriages. So, first the frighteners - marriage rates are at their lowest since records began 150 years ago. One in three births occurs outside marriage. One in four new marriages will end in divorce. One in five families with dependent children is headed by a lone parent. Social mayhem, push the moral panic button, crank up your instant indignators, dust off Norman Tebbit and blame it all on the 1960s.

Let me say it out loud - the permissive society is the civilised society, and for helping make that a legislative fact may Roy Jenkins' name live for ever.

These figures represent the fruits of freedom. Current social problems make us forget history all too easily. A brutal past is blotted out in nostalgia for the golden days of the family when Darby and Joan hobbled contentedly into the sunset, nary a cross word between them.

Oral historians, including the BBC's Bristol-based unit, have been collecting old people's stories about their own lives - love, sex, marriage, childbirth and parenthood. And it does not look rosy at all. Old people talk of a lifetime of despair, harnessed to the wrong partner. Social stigma, poverty and the divorce laws shackled people together in silent misery, or worse.

A brief fling in pre-contraceptive days could destroy a girl. Some were locked up in mental institutions by their caring, sharing old-world families. Many left their babies, yes, in Republican-pleasing orphanages, where they promptly saved money by dying. More often, the shame of pregnancy forced the pair into marriage with a partner they hardly knew; parish records show how many babies always were conceived before marriage. This is something "communities" do.

Everything looked good on the outside, and it was never the business of the state to inquire what went on behind family front doors. But was it socially "better"? There is no Fall. Antediluvian solutions don't work, and you can't unwish the myriad changes in economy and society that have taken place in the 20th century. There is no quantifier for collective happiness. All I know is which society I would rather live and bring up my children in.

The Joseph Rowntree study is compendious. It follows a series of seminars by great and good thinkers of all persuasions. It inflames, then seeks to calm fears. Dissolution, yes, but stability, too - figures also show that seven out of 10 families with children are headed by both natural parents. Only 8 per cent live in step-families. Only 7 per cent live with single, never-married mothers.

The report takes a measured view of the effects of divorce on children. Yes, some research shows some children are more likely to suffer in health, education and behaviour following divorce. "There is, however, no inevitable path down which children will travel following divorce. The statistical differences with children from intact families, although no coincidence, are in many cases modest."

It is conflict between parents that causes the damage, and the report calls for more mediation to stop separating parents fighting.

The word Family is a dangerous political talisman. Family, community, nation ... A whiff of something faintly suspicious can be caught, from time to time, wafting from Tony Blair's camp. According to Amitai Etzioni, the guru of communitarianism, "the United Kingdom has not yet reached the levels of moral anarchy we witness in the United States, but the trends are clear. Increases in rates of violent crime, illegitimacy, drug abuse, children who kill and show no remorse and political corruption are all significant symptoms."

Spot the odd one out in that list. Illegitimacy is not illegal; indeed, it doesn't even exist in law any longer. Illegitimacy was not the cause of the Bulger killing. (Anyone who throws in the shocking Bulger case as an example of anything should be regarded with due scepticism.)

Etzioni talks of "grave social ill health" and the cracking of moral and social foundations. If the family is the building block of a stable society, the implication is that if we put it back together again, with everyone behind the right front doors, all will be well. There is a curious mismatch between the real world of our friends, relations, colleagues, soap operas on television, the gossip we read and indulge in - in short, the life we live - and the words of concern about the family that trip so readily off the tongues of policy makers. Have they no daughters, step- daughters, sisters, lovers, ex-wives? Is there no divorce all around them, too? Some may even have sons who are having affairs with older women. Public morality has always been a code for the morals of the poor. In other words, it isn't about morality at all, but about money, and how to pay for the poor.

Three times more children are poor than in 1979. Thirty-two per cent of children now live in families with less than half average income, and that is due in part to divorce and single parenthood. Society is still modelled on a system where the man works and the woman minds. When the man departs, the woman is largely helpless, since women still earn only 75 per cent of men's wages. The huge growth in working women is mainly in part-time jobs as second earners. Few can earn enough to become breadwinners.

The single mother problem is really a problem of inequality between women and men.

The report points to a tax shift in the last 30 years: a married couple with two children pay 12.9 per cent more tax, while a single person only pays 5.5 per cent more than in 1964. The idea of a tax incentive to marriage recently excited the Archbishop of York. The inadvertant effects of tax policies made without due regard to social impact are legion. But to swing it the other way would now be to penalise single parents, who struggle most. A bribe to couples might make more co-habiters bother to get the bit of paper, but would it induce them to stay together if the relationship fails?

That's just the trouble. Policy makers are clutching at levers in disused signal boxes: nothing much happens when you pull them. The sad history of the Child Support Agency is a good case. By punitive seizure of funds from fathers, it was supposed to make men think again before abandoning their families. It was severe enough to have an effect, but it didn't send men scuttling home. They simply rebelled, with the full support of most of the newspapers who lead the pack in social moralising. Some will regard this report as hopelessly limp in its conclusions. But that's because it accepts reality.

`Family and Parenthood: supporting families, preventing breakdown', by David Utting. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, £9.50. Published Friday.

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