MARRIAGE AND FAMILY:
Family the key to social inclusion
by James Bogle News Weekly 5 September 2009
Five hundred people from around Australia gathered in Canberra at the Great Hall of Parliament House on August 13 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the passage of the Howard Government’s Marriage Amendment Act, designed to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.
The Canberra gathering also saw the inauguration of a National Marriage Day breakfast.
The keynote speaker was Australian-born UK barrister, James Bogle. Here is a shortened version of his address.
Recently, Mr Justice Paul Coleridge, a judge of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales, was reported in the media warning of an epidemic of family breakdown which he described as a “national tragedy”. Sir Paul declared that “our children are the losers in the national game of ‘pass the partner'”.
He said: “As a family judge, I have witnessed the damage done by the endless game of ‘musical relationships’, or ‘pass the partner’, in which a significant portion of the population is engaged.”
He added: “There is a tendency, especially among the chattering classes, to assume that we have attained a social utopia, in which we are entirely and happily free from taboos, stigmas and other constraints on behaviour. It sounds so beguiling: let us all do what we want, when we want and sort out any mess as we go along.
“But surely the test of any social change is whether it enhances people’s lives or makes them more miserable. And this is where I take issue with the modern view of the family.“If it is so successful, why are the statistics for separation so large? More significantly, why are the family courts overwhelmed with cases involving damaged, miserable or disturbed children? How do other children, caught up in less serious separations, really feel? Do they relish the endless changes of partner, or adapting to a new step-parent and step-siblings?
“I am not suggesting, of course, that all change is bad, or that all relationship breakdowns can be avoided. Genuinely intolerable relationships have to be ended with as little distress as possible. But I fear that the current state of the family represents change for the worse – and those most affected, the children, are not considered in the maelstrom that surrounds them. …
“There is no quick-fix solution, although the reaffirmation of marriage as the gold standard would be a start: statistically, it has proved to be the most enduring relationship, and the best environment for children.” (The Telegraph, UK, June 17, 2009).
This is, I understand, often as true of Australia as it is of Britain where I live and work; but Australia, at least, has taken some significant steps to address the problem. Today, on National Marriage Day, we have an opportunity to celebrate that.
The family is where the vast majority of us learn the fundamental skills for life. Physically, emotionally and socially it is the context from which the rest of life flows.
However, family stability in Britain has been in continuous decline for four decades. We increasingly are faced with the challenges of families which are: a) dysfunctional (often because of mental health issues), b) fractured (through separation or divorce), or c) fatherless (15 per cent of babies are born into homes with no resident father, and many more end up that way). This is especially the case in the least advantaged sections of society.
In the UK, policy-makers have been reluctant to grasp the nettle of family breakdown; yet the consequences are evident for all to see, as Justice Coleridge is in no doubt about.
A recent very comprehensive report from the Centre for Social Justice, the social policy think-tank created by former British Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan-Smith MP, entitled Breakthrough Britain, included one volume on family breakdown.
The research committee was chaired by Dr Samantha Callan and made numerous policy recommendations to help curtail the social costs of family breakdown.
It made a comprehensive analysis of the issues and identified three among many significant consequences:
1) The majority of cohabiting partnerships are less stable than marriage (European data shows that, by a child’s fifth birthday, fewer than one in 12 (8 per cent) of married parents have split up, compared to almost one in two (43 per cent) cohabiting parents).
2) Crime is strongly correlated with family breakdown – 70 per cent of young offenders are from lone-parent families and one third of prisoners were in local authority care (yet only 0.6 per cent of the nation’s children are in care at any one time).
3) Costs of family breakdown to the British exchequer are conservatively estimated to be well over £20 billion per annum.
This research tends to reinforce and build upon earlier research such as the Exeter Family Study of 1994 (Cockett and Tripp) which showed that there tended to be far more damage to children from divorce than even from families characterised by acrimony and conflict.
Broken Homes and Battered Children, a study in the 1990s published by the Family Education Trust, analysed child abuse cases from the Family Court Reporter and showed that, while the safest place for a child was in a family of one parent of each sex, the most unsafe was the fatherless family where the mother had a temporary new live-in lover.
Marriage, far from being “just a piece of paper”, was, so the evidence clearly demonstrated, a true commitment to the future safety, security and best interests of any child born, a commitment strengthened by being made publicly by the couple with their friends and family as witnesses.
In the light of these findings, the authors of Breakthrough Britain made particular suggestions for policy directions. State support should be provided in a way that encourages family networks to be self-supporting and well-rooted in the community and further strengthen the many families which are under pressure. They must have the following objectives:
• Facilitate family stability and minimise family breakdown by encouraging healthy family relationships.
• Maximise community-level support and minimise dependence on the state. Encourage and promote extended family relationships.
• Send the message that every family matters, an essential complement to the more usual “every child matters” policy approach. Focusing exclusively on poverty and neglecting the couple relationship at the heart of the family will never shift the current statistics.
• Create a positive policy bias in support of marriage. The tax system does not recognise the benefits which marriage brings to society.
However, policy in Britain seems to be heading in the other direction, and it is now normative for public bodies to avoid descriptors that indicate that individuals are married. Thus “partner” instead of “wife” or “husband”, as if marital commitment were somehow purely a matter of lifestyle choice, like preferring golf to cricket or cycling over running. This is despite the weight of evidence demonstrating that family breakdown is costing the nation literally billions of pounds a year.
Writing in the 2006 State of Our Unions report, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe demonstrated a wide range of evidence showing that the economic benefits of marriage are substantial.
Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, in their seminal work The Case for Marriage (Doubleday 2000), demonstrated that the married were, generally, better off in all the key determinant areas of life – health, earnings, longevity, child-rearing and the primary indicators of human happiness.
Robert George and Jean Bethke Elshtain, professors at Princeton and Chicago, respectively, in their edited work The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals, further demonstrated the enduring benefit to the state, to society and to the common good of the widespread incidence of healthy marriages.
Sixteen of the top US scholars on the subject of family life have re-issued a joint report on the importance of marriage to a healthy society, entitled Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions from the Social Sciences. Judith Wallerstein’s The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce tells the same story.
The research is overwhelmingly in favour of marriage as best for children, for adults and for society. In marriage children enjoy better health, physical and mental, and make better relationships themselves in later life.
Married couples have longer life expectancy and a better record of higher earnings and career success.
Marriage increases the likelihood that fathers will have good relationships with children. Married mothers have a lower rate of depression than single or co-habiting mothers and married women are actually at lower risk of domestic violence than co-habiting women.
Cohabiting couples are more like singles than marrieds in terms of physical health, emotional well-being and mental health, as well as in terms of assets, earnings and financial betterment, and their children are more comparable in those terms to the children of singles.
Marriage reduces the risk that children and adults will be either the perpetrators or the victims of crime, whereas the absence of fathers in a family is directly associated with a higher incidence of criminality in young adolescents and young adults.
In sum, marriage is a vitally important social good and the decline of marriage is highly expensive to society financially and in terms of mental health indicators. Marriage is directly associated with an impressive array of positive outcomes for children and adults alike.
These benefits accrue not only to the better-off but, even more so, to poor, marginalised and minority communities and groups. Marriage is associated with economic, health, educational and safety benefits which are crucial to society as a whole.
Far from being a mere lifestyle choice, marriage is of vital benefit to all members of society, including those who are not married or never marry.
This is the proven track record of marriage, re-emphasised by research. This track record is chiefly noticeable by its absence from those other environments for the upbringing of children with which society is currently experimenting.
We should not be remotely apologetic about supporting an institution which is so beneficial to society and to individuals and which, if it is unsupported and allowed to go wrong, can cause immense harm to its members and to society as a whole.
The time for experimenting with the health and welfare of our children, who are the nation’s future, is over.
The traditional extended family is the key to social inclusion, cohesion and survival. If we are really serious about child protection and care and the best interests of children, we will make protection of that extended family an immediate policy priority.