Opinion: Poverty is at the root of family breakdown

When I read in The Guardian that I was “The Tories’ poverty guru” it was the first I knew about it.

Certainly, Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) and I agree that locally run community projects should be properly funded. But I do not agree with much of what the Conservatives have to say on poverty and the family.

Tim Loughton MP’s new paper arguing for more emphasis on the prevention of family breakdown is one thing. But I take issue with the Social Justice Policy Group, chaired by IDS, which asserts in its report Breakdwon Britain, that the breakdown of marriage is a major cause of poverty.The argument is that cohabiting couples are twice as likely to split up as married ones.

They then swell the numbers of one-parent families who raise deprived children who become the next generation of under-achievers and poor parents themselves. The report wants to encourage marriage by tax breaks for married couples. True, unemployed young people and those in poverty are disproportionately from one-parent families.

But why? In their study of parents in disadvantaged environments, Ghate and Hazel found that many poor parents, including lone parents, wanted the best for their children and struggled hard to provide them with positive values, love and support.(1)

However, insufficient income, debt, poor accommodation, lack of leisure facilities, could all undermine their parenting. When the children of such families leave school, they often face the prospect of grotty jobs or unemployment. Tensions about money can harm relationships between the parents.

The main explanation of their (and their children’s) condition was poverty and inequality – not the existence of an underclass of inadequate, unmarried families.

Would more marriages mean less unemployment and poverty? Not necessarily. In Victorian times, a larger proportion of couples were married but thousands suffered poverty. Or consider families from Muslim backgrounds in the UK.

They are very likely to be married, with few lone parents, yet they are much more likely to be in poverty than families headed by white parents. Iain Duncan Smith might recall that, when he came to Easterhouse, he met stable, married couples who were still poor. In short, poverty derives mostly from political and economic forces.

One other factor received little attention from Breakdown Britain. Psychologist Gillian Evans lived for years on a deprived estate. She points out that some so called problem parents had well-behaved children but that, once the boys became teenagers, they could be more influenced by peer groups who drew them away from school and into delinquency and unemployment. It is not enough to blame their failures just on the parents.

Don’t get me wrong. Having been wed for 43 years, I value the institution of marriage. I think its legality and commitment do encourage couples to stay together which, in turn, means that their children do not face the trauma of break-ups and separations.
But I do not agree with the Conservatives that marriage is some kind of panacea that can abolish poverty.

Poverty exists because governments decree that low benefits, low pay and inferior accommodation should hit many lone parents and some married parents. My view is that all citizens, whatever the make-up of their family composition, should have the level of income which frees then from severe financial difficulties.

So perhaps I will advise the Tories after all. IDS should determine just what a decent income is and just what the equality target should be – and then set policies to meet these ends.

(1) D Ghate and N Hazel, Parenting in Poor Environments, Jessica Kingsley, 2002
(2) G Evans, Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain, Macmillan Palgrave, 2006

Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow”I do not agree with the Conservatives that marriage is some kind of panacea that can abolish poverty”

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