LEADING ARTICLE : The poverty of family policy

THIRTY years ago, nobody thought that governments needed a "family policy" for the simple reason that the family (in the old sense of a married couple with children) seemed an immutable part of the landscape. Politicians had no more need of a family policy than a policy on the rising of the sun.

Now, it seems that the decline of the traditional family has eroded one of our social cornerstones. So, argue some politicians, we need a "family policy" to deter divorce and to restore the cosy firesides of the 1950s. But is this the right answer? A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week (Family and Parenthood by David Utting) documents the importance of families for children. Those living with single parents are far more likely to live in poverty - with enormous consequences for their health and education. The report spells out the extent to which politicians may be responsible. The proportion of income paid in tax and national insurance contributions by the childless has been decreasing; that paid by the "traditional" couple with two children has been increasing. Housing policy, meanwhile, has helped to create ghettoes of poor and vulnerable children. On some large, new housing developments as few as one in five tenants has a full-time job, one household in two is headed by a lone parent and average income is less than a third of the national average. These changes have come about not because politicians lacked a "family policy" but because they did not care enough about ordinary working people and their children. The argument is not about trying to restore the family as it existed in the early 1960s. This is a task that is almost certainly beyond public policy. The point is how best to keep children out of poverty. The answers lie, as they have always done, in taxation, housing and employment policy.