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Harry Benson: Sewell Report highlights the damage caused by family breakdown, but doesn’t offer solutions

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Harry Benson is Research Director for the Marriage Foundation and co-author of What Mums Want (and Dads Need to Know).

The recent report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, released a month ago today, claims to be the first government-commissioned study on race that seriously engages with the family.

Dr Tony Sewell and colleagues quite rightly say we should not stigmatise lone parents. But nor should we turn a blind eye to the impact of family breakdown on the life chances of children.

However, by failing to identify the drivers of family breakdown, the report does exactly that. Just two of its 24 recommendations (#7 and #19) mention ‘family’. None address factors that might improve stability and reduce family breakdown, such as marriage, commitment, or even relationship quality.

For those who take their cue from data rather than opinion, the report is excellent in highlighting how factors such as family, socio-economic background, geography, culture and religion have a more significant impact on family outcomes than race. If only it hadn’t stopped there.

One of the most striking findings comes from a new release on lone parent families by the Office for National Statistics. While careful to avoid any charge of passing judgment, the report identifies how lone parent families typically face greater strain and need more support than couple families. Among ethnic groups, the range of lone parenthood rates is huge. Least stable are black Caribbean families, where 63 per cent of children live in lone parent households compared to just six per cent among Indian families, who are the most stable. By way of comparison, the proportion for the UK as a whole is 22 per cent (not 14.7 per cent, as claimed in the report).

Other than a nod to divorce and the influence of male responsibility and the welfare state, there is little attempt to explain this striking variation between groups.

In an analysis of family breakdown among 9,000 families with 11-year-olds that I did with my colleague Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln, we found that ethnicity does indeed make a difference. All other factors being equal, black fathers are more likely to split from the mother and Asian mothers are less likely to split from the father. Black mothers and Asian fathers face no greater or lesser risk than their white counterparts.

However – and it is a big however – the influence of ethnicity is only a fraction as important as the mother’s age, education, or happiness and whether she is married or cohabiting when the child is born.

Being married rather than cohabiting is one of the most important factors in predicting whether couples stay together or split up. It’s more important than the mother’s education, but six times more important than mother’s ethnicity and 17 times more important than father’s ethnicity.

In another analysis we did of 14-year-olds in the next wave of the same survey, we found that ethnicity did not influence teenage boys mental health at all. But it did have a small but counterintuitive effect on girls. Black girls were slightly less likely to show high levels of mental health problems, whereas Pakistani or Bangladeshi girls were more likely. This latter effect disappeared altogether once the parents’ income was taken into account.

Once again, other factors played a far more important role than race. Family breakdown, being married when the child was born, and the mother’s education were the most important factors predicting subsequent teenage mental health.

Dr Sewell and his colleagues are absolutely right to point out that family breakdown has a much bigger effect on outcomes than race. But their recommendations fall badly short without acknowledging how marriage – and the clarity of commitment that it represents – are the key buffer against family breakdown.


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