Forget race or class, marriage is the big social divide

24 June 2021

3:28 AM

24 June 2021

3:28 AM

The latest spark to ignite the culture wars is a report from the parliamentary education committee on the underachievement of working-class white boys. But this isn’t about race. The boys don’t underachieve because they are white. Their skin colour is merely a marker by which we can see that a certain cohort is doing worse than another.

And despite received wisdom, it’s not just about poverty, school funding or investment. Children of other ethnicities who are equally poor, and even potentially at the same school, will likely do considerably better.

It’s not even about class, which seems to be the latest factor on which the fickle finger of blame is falling. I couldn’t even tell you what working-class means anymore but by most definitions the link becomes pretty tenuous and not a little pejorative.

But there is a 40-year trend that perfectly maps onto almost every aspect of this problem. It’s not much admired in modern society, but then data doesn’t really care for middle-class sensibilities. Children tell us it’s important while adults seem ever more squeamish about it. It’s marriage rates.

They’ve been steadily collapsing since the 1970s. Not just declining but falling off a cliff. Even at the height of the second world war, one of its previous lowest points, the male marriage rate was almost triple what it is today. We claim to value our families but imagine the response if something we truly cared about, like employment rates, were doing the same.

People tell me that talk of marriage is moralising and uncomfortable and revert to the importance of ‘stability’ to children instead. But let’s call a spade a spade. There is no other form of relationship that offers anywhere near the same level of stability in any thriving culture in the whole of human history. If we care about kids, we should care about marriage. Alarmed wedding bells should be ringing and ringing hard.

This decline is not universal and points to the very problem discussed by the education committee this week.

New analysis of the Family Resources Survey, carried out this week by the Centre for Social Justice, has found that the disparity in marriage between rich and poor white families in the UK is very very stark.

In the wealthiest fifth of white families by income, 84 per cent are married and reaping the benefits of that stability, with a further 12 per cent co-habiting. In the poorest fifth just 19 per cent are married with a further 9 per cent co-habiting — there is a pretty straight line through the income groups in between. It means if you are born into a wealthier family, you have a 96 per cent chance of having two parents. In our poorest communities, your chances are just 28 per cent and falling.

In real and stark terms it means this: if you’re white and rich you get a dad, and if you’re white and poor you probably don’t. Teachers, mentors, youth clubs, and investment are all great, but the ultimate privilege in life is now a present father.

It tells you everything you need to know about how seriously we take this problem that we have to harvest the statistics from around the edges of obscure national resource surveys. We don’t even collect enough information for there to be meaningful data on smaller ethnic groups than white British.

But we do collect overall family structure rates once a decade in the Census, and it is little surprise that the marriage rates of each ethnic group map almost perfectly onto the school achievements of their children.

Poor Indian and Chinese children, two communities with very high marriage rates, don’t just do better than other poor children in their GCSEs — they do better than most middle-income children too. While black Caribbean children join poor white children at the bottom of the class for both marriage rates and school attainment.

Critics will rightly say that these data are mere correlations and that poverty itself causes family instability. And they’re right to a degree. But the reverse is also true, that family instability causes poverty and the varying outcomes in the different ethnic groups simply underline this fact — social capital matters as much as financial capital to children’s futures.

But lastly, and perhaps most perniciously, is not just how little data we collect on this but our unwillingness to talk about it at all. If a drug showed the sort of effects as marriage, correlation or not, it would be in our children’s systems faster than you can say Oxford-AstraZeneca. Let’s not pretend then that we have abandoned marriage for the benefit of children. We have done it solely for the freedom of adults.

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