MM 2001: Different does not mean worse

December 21, 2000

The family is alive, society has not broken down, so isit time to stop calling for a return to values that were never lost and address the real issues? asks Phil Baty.

Reports of the death of the family, and the consequent disintegration of our moral and social fibre, are premature, according to researchers at the end of two multimillion-pound, five-year studies on families and childhood for the Economic and Social Research Council.

"The doom and gloom has all been a bit overstated," says Susan McRae, director of the ESRC's £2.4 million programme,Family and Household Change in Britain. "Family values" and a sense of social responsibility have been resistant to erosion in the face of the disintegration of the traditional family, McRae's research teams have found. On a parallel ESRC programme, Children 5-16 growing into the 21st century, researchers have discovered that youngsters come out of family break-ups with resilience and even positive experiences.

Of course, family life has faced massive and accelerating change over the past few decades, and this is set to continue. The ESRC's programme teams have noted that the number of marriages taking place in the past two decades has halved, with remarriages making up 42 per cent of these. In the same few decades, the number of divorces has trebled and the proportion of children born outside marriage has quadrupled.

A fifth of children are living in a one-parent household. One in three marriages ends in divorce within 20 years. Thirteen per cent of Britain's births are to teenagers, with 90 per cent of these outside marriage. There are 2 million fathers in Britain who do not live with their children. The number of babies born from donor insemination almost doubled to 1,321 between 1991 and 1998.

However, research from McRae's programme has challenged the assumption that changes in family life are responsiblefor social breakdown. The changing structures of families are not undermining the sense of community responsibility associated with them.

A study by Joanna Bornat of the Open University found that family break-updoes not necessarily affect the capacity of families to care for their older members.It can, in fact, reinforce the parental role of older people and strengthen family ties. Studies of gay and lesbian communitiesby Jeffrey Weeks of South Bank University found that a strong sense of individualism was often accompanied by a feeling of responsibility and obligation towards others.

A strong sense of "family" is also holding up in the face of changing family structures, a project from the Family Policy Studies Centre has found. After examining the British Social Attitudes Survey, Ceridwen Roberts reported that those who put family before friends outnumbered by 11 to one those who believed friends were more important.

Research at Leeds University's centre for Research on Family, Kinship and Childhood has revealed that children who had their lives split between two separated parents often reported positive experiences. "Children find divorce difficult, but we found that a year or so after the divorce, they see many advantages to their situation in extended families," says project leader Carol Smart. "The children who remained unhappy were the ones still being used in fights between parents."

The findings have significant policy implications. They challenge the government's firm assertion in its consultation paper Supporting Families that marriage is "the surest foundation for raising children".

Research has concluded almost universally that poverty is the real issue. The theme emerging consistently from McRae's programme was that money was more of an influence than family structure on children's experiences, behaviour and opportunities.

"There are fundamental economic problems linked to demographic behaviour," McRae says. "Working-class girls get pregnant at 16, whereas those who have their sights raised by their parents do not."

Poverty and a lack of education increase the likelihood of family break-up which, in turn, exacerbates serious economic problems for the poor. "There are two kinds of lone parent," says McRae. "The one in the tower block smoking herself to death. And the divorced woman of an affluent ex-husband."

Studies under the £2.9 million Growing into the 21st century project, which is drawing to a close, concur that family break-up is not inherently important, but the economic disadvantage it can exacerbate is.

A study under the project The Changing Home: Outcomes for Children found that family type was remarkable only for its lack of any significant influence on children's behaviour. Using the Longitudinal study run by the Office of National Statistics, the team, led by Heather Joshi at City University's Social Statistics Research Unit, found that "on all indicators of wellbeing, children varied both within and between family types". Their findings suggest "a resilience to change in some and a vulnerability in others, not explained by family type".

Joshi found that the differences weremore to do with socioeconomic factors than with family structure. The prevalence of absent fathers was less significant than the financial implications of an absent father.

The policy implications for the 40-plus projects under the two ESRC research programmes are remarkably consistent: family breakdown and lone parenthood push the poor further into poverty, raising policy issues about housing, employment, childcare, social security and education. The issues are less about preventing family break-up per se, than about reducing the harmful effects of break-up.

The ESRC is taking bids for researchers to work on a 2000-01 programme, Changing Families. "It is not yet clear what is replacing 'the family as it is'," says the council's invitation for bids. "Moreover, it is not yet certain that anything important has changed." A key element of the programme is the need "to look at the new political economy of care: who is paying whom to care for their families?"

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