Family breakdown in history: setting the record straight

Single mothers in the UK. Picture: Daily Mail

There are basically two responses to the social problems
besetting richer societies today: one traces things like crime, educational
under-achievement and addiction to the breakdown of the family; the other response
says it is all down to poverty.

The poverty brigade do not want to hear anything about
family structure and marriage, despite the well-documented evidence that
children brought up by single mothers or starting life with cohabiting parents
will have a far more unstable childhood and related problems. And it seems that
these champions of the poor will go to any lengths to make their case that the
moral permissiveness dating from the pill and the 1960s has nothing to do with it.

Last year a British historian of this persuasion published a
widely-reported paper, Happy
Families? History and Family Policy
, in which she argued that there is
nothing new about contemporary levels of family breakdown. Some 48 per cent of
all children born in the UK today will not grow up with both their parents, but
Professor Pat Thane argued that it had all been done before. She said there
were high rates of illegitimacy and cohabitation in the first half of the 20th century
-- and earlier centuries.
Her paper claims:

“Pre-marital sex was a normal part of the
courtship process for very large sections of the population throughout much of
the last 250 years and is not a development of the 1960s.”

This was too much for the Centre
for Social Justice
-- a high-profile think tank seeking effective solutions
to poverty -- which set about doing its own research. The CSJ’s family
researcher Dr Samantha Callan, together with historian Professor Rebecca
Probert, examined data stretching back to the 18th century and recently
published a rebuttal to the Happy Families pamphlet. Their key

* The percentage of births outside marriage in the England
and Wales hovered around 5 per cent (except during the two world wars) before
rising in the 1960s onwards.

*By the late 1970s, this figure was above 10 per cent, by
1991 it was 30 per cent and today it is 45 per cent.

*Levels of births outside marriage were the same in the
1950s as the 1750s at around 5 per cent.

*Claims that cohabitation levels, as opposed to marriage,
were “high” in the early part of the 20th Century are not borne out by the
facts. The authors point to research suggesting that in the 1950s and 1960s,
only 1-3 per cent of couples cohabited before marriage. Other research puts the
pre-1945 level of cohabitation at 4 per cent. Today, nearly 90 per cent of
couples live together before getting married.

*Records of unemployment claims from the 1920s point to
minimal levels of cohabitation.

Among other interesting things the authors point out:

The one way in which the 1950s and 1960s were exceptional
was in the fact that a particularly high proportion of individuals married, and
at a much younger age than in earlier generations. But high numbers of
unmarried people in earlier periods do not mean, as the report implies, that
high numbers were cohabiting. Instead, what is striking about households in
earlier generations is that high numbers of relatives were sharing a home. Some
even offered a home to those in need regardless of whether they were related to
them – which gives a rather different message about the values of the past.

One can only cheer on the CSJ in its well-informed efforts
to get governments to give family structure its due importance in making
policies to solve social problems.


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