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Penny Booth: Single parents? Not again...

Date:27 APR 2010

Single parents? Not again...

Penny BoothWhat is it about the Sunday papers that often encourages the publication of articles you want to read, yet ideas you want to line the cat litter tray with?

Not for the first time, not for the last, I bet. Single parents are in the firing line as far as family law, families, the politics of the country etc go... try the Sunday Times on 18 April, page 18. The headline is that up to 75% of children (in some areas, mind you!) will be born to unmarried mothers. Nicely-put, but still rather scary and misleading for the casual reader as all you see is 75%, and not the story behind the headline. The ONS data ‘suggests' that in many areas if the birth rate of children to unmarried parents is not already above the 50% mark, then it very soon will be. Here comes the jump - that brings those areas into the group of geographical areas that the newspaper claims many critics regard as being signs of deterioration in ‘family values' where the values of marriage and stability are lacking.

Who are the ‘experts'? I have enormous respect for some of these ‘experts' as they are usually more experienced than I am in the areas they pronounce upon; they crunch the statistics, wax eloquent on the sociology and meet the people (the latter, one hopes, in the case of politicians who are frequently to be found waxing eloquent on many issues they talk about, don't deal with and don't have to in the future). It is, however, simply misleading and positively scaremongering to think that single parenthood comes in the same format every time, and that it automatically means a breakdown in society. It is a truism that children do better in a stable family home with two parents - but not all children born to unmarried women lack a stable home life, and many born to unmarried mothers have unmarried fathers around in any case. Many have wider family supporting them. I know some don't.

‘Blaming' a political party for the breakdown in society allegedly because more children are born into an unmarried household over the period of their stewardship of government is skipping a few steps I would like proved to me as the reader. After all, nothing stays the same over the life of any government. Not that I am promoting one political view over another - I am just worried that this sort of article misses so many steps such that it positively seduces the reader into conclusions which are simply unsustainable from the information given.

So what? As the end of the article almost grudgingly admits, with fewer couples getting married the simple fact of being born to unmarried parents does not necessarily mean that a child is disadvantaged. Yes, probably the case that many single parent households are dependent on welfare benefits and risk the poverty trap that condemns the children to the same family life. Many two parent households are also dependent on welfare benefits. What differs is the perspective from which the single parent household is viewed. The sad fact is that if you are well off financially there are better opportunities and a higher chance that the missing bits of life will be felt less sharply. The fact of non-marital birth will be far less of an impact on life generally if the money is right. Would you like to be born to loving unmarried parents in the leafy suburbs of London or in the concrete housing estates of the north-east? Would you like to spend your childhood in a loving home without the money and marriage certificate, or just a home with enough money and the legal certificate of acceptance? The difference is attitude, then, but financial, not the values of marriage. Many single parents are so because of choice - but many have had no choice at all. Death and divorce hit many whose values were family oriented.

What's to be done? Perhaps we should be thinking about the provision of advice that is specific to the unmarried parent - time to rethink what advice we give, and to ditch the assumptions that everyone does/should or even ‘oughta' get married, and consider what advice on the legal implications could be given. That would save some money and might save some future angst.

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.