So it turns out family values and 'shoring up the family' are the hot topics for the election, with lots of spouting about how supporting the family and encouraging marriage are good for the economy, good for society and particularly promote 'stability'. At no point, has anybody in these debates shown how marriage is good for the economy. Whether it is good for society is presumably a question of what you think society should look like (although it seems to be used to mean stopping crime and drugs), and while we're at it what on earth does 'stability' mean? As part of this discussion, the Tories have announced tax breaks for married couples- part of their policy to promote marriage- because we all know all those evil cohabitees and singles just live like that because they want to break up with their partners willy-nilly and really are a bit unstable (and clearly tying such people into marriages is the healthy and safe option). It is also not clear whether 'married' couples include civil partners- presumably the existence of gay people is just indicative of the breakdown of society.*
David Cameron has said that this policy says 'if you take responsibility, you will be rewarded- if you don't you won't'. Because, again, people who cohabit or live by themselves are not taking responsibility... how exactly? Does taking responsibility mean being tied into a institution which holds no meaning to you? I thought we called that hypocrisy? Ah perhaps, taking responsibility means if you do choose to split up you are forced to pay for a divorce- well, that may contribute to the economy!
To make matters worse, the response from the other parties has been, err, enlightening. Lib Dem's Nick Clegg's criticism was: "It is immensely unfair. What does is mean for the poor woman who has been left by some philandering husband who goes on to another marriage and gets the tax break and she doesn't?" Yes, because we still live in the nineteenth century, where the 'poor woman' suckered by the 'evil man' should be the terms in which we see family life. This was the exact argument used to bring in divorce legislation in 19th Century Britain as well as to expand the penalties for domestic violence- and while it had a time and (very important) place, do we still want family policy to be determined by protectionism towards women? Protectionism, by definition, implied that women were not equal to men and so needed someone to look after them- and in default of their husbands, it was the state. Now I am sure men leave their wives and remarry, but women also leave their husbands! And, while it may only be a slip of the tongue, I do not want the terms that family life is negotiated to implicitly or explicitly see women as less than equal. Because while society continues to discriminate against women- in the family as in other walks of life- government policy that builds on this presumption continues to reinforce it.**
So what do the facts tell us anyway? Is marriage the solution to society's ill? Well, surprisingly, not really or at least the effect is extremely complex. Some studies suggest that getting married is better for you than cohabiting. Getting married or cohabiting reduces casual drug use and being married/ cohabiting gives a higher rate of success for recovering addicts; the effect is more pronounced if you are married, rather than cohabit, IF YOU ARE A MAN (for women the quality of the relationship is more important). Some studies suggest that you are more likely to see your income rise when you marry, IF YOU ARE A RICH MAN. And, that seems to be the net benefit of marriage over cohabitation. People who cohabit are more likely to earn less and come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and neighbourhoods, than those that marry- but this seems to be an explanation for why people don't marry, rather than the other way round. So, of course, if married people seem 'more stable' (ie more middle class), it is because they are more likely to be middle class.
Now, what is not being said here is that what really makes society unstable is divorce. For children, if you're parents get divorced, it might fuck you up in a myriad of ways (emotional problems, depression, early sexual experiences, suicide, teen drunkenness, more likely to be overweight), but you may be no more likely to take drugs (depending on the study). On the plus side, if you manage to stabilise (read: not become a junkie or emotional wreck) by the time you're in your mid-late twenties, you'll generally be ok, but you have a higher chance of being an alcoholic. If you become a junkie, chances are you'll also be a life-long criminal (but remember your parents getting divorced may not have influenced that!). To make matters more complicated, other studies have shown that parental divorce decreases your chances of childhood delinquency, while being in a single parent household makes no difference to delinquency. The most consistent predictors of crime are, no surprises for guessing, living in poor neighbourhoods, childhood poverty, and poor education. These are ALSO the predictors of divorce, but so are male unemployment, having a first-born female child (if you are a woman), living together before marriage, and being white (ethnically).***
So, if divorce is the problem, why do we care about whether people MARRY, and the reason is that people who cohabit are more likely to split up than people who marry. But, what is not being said is that today most people live together before they get married, and cohabiting people who see themselves marrying their partner have the same probability of splitting up as married people. In essence, because most people cohabit before they marry, those relationships which weren't going to work were weeded out before marriage. So, the only way that promoting marriage through tax breaks will stop divorce is by making miserable people stay together for financial reasons. And guess what- miserable parents create miserable criminal, junkie children- don't you love statistics.
So what should the government do to help make happy relationships (if we don't want to go down the radical line of getting rid of families altogether)? Well, it turns out that couples who earn similar amounts to each other- so have resource equality- and share resources in the household, who have shared interests and contribute equally to household chores have the highest levels of marital satisfaction and the most stable marriages (which is why feminists have lower divorce rates). Furthermore, the higher a level of a woman's education, the better for the stability of marriage. So pay equality between men and women in the workplace is good for marriage. Education is good for marriage. Gender equality is good for marriage. The other big predictor is poverty and coming from poor neighbourhoods, so how about promoting stability through wealth distribution, rather than cutting welfare further and criminalising the poor?
Why not- instead of falling back on Victorian conservatism- we look to creating policies which will actually make a difference?
* I would assume that it would have to or it would fall short of equality legislation (but if we're so happy to call civil partners 'married' as shorthand, what is the fuss about having two different 'marriage' registration systems? Another question for another day.)
** When protective legislation is put in place, it must be done with clear and explicit recognition of what it is and be designed to combat a particular social wrong, with the aim of creating equality.
*** So, from this perspective, immigration can only be a good thing! Should I tell Mr Cameron?