The government needs to stop ignoring the social disaster of women deserts

The Centre for Applied Data Torture reports.

Pictured: A desert. Possibly a men desert. Photograph: Getty Images

In an as yet unreleased report – which was nonetheless the subject of a feature on Newsnight on Monday – the Centre for Social Justice draws attention to the social timebomb of men deserts in many areas in the UK. A press release (pdf) for the report states:

Around one million children grow up with no contact with their father

Many are in “men deserts” and have no male role model in sight

In a foreword to the report, titled: Fractured Families: why stability matters, from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Director Christian Guy warns of the “tsunami” of family breakdown battering the country. He says the human, social and financial costs are “devastating” for children and adults alike.

CSJ have used an original approach to the analysis of small area Census data to unmask the social crisis of “men deserts”. As they say “The report features ‘league tables’ showing the parts of the country (Lower Layer Super Output Areas, which have an average population of 1,614) where fatherless and lone parent households are most prevalent. In one neighbourhood in the Riverside ward of Liverpool, there is no father present in 65 per cent of households with dependent children.”

By coincidence, my colleagues and I the Centre for Applied Data Torture (CADT) have also been working on the worrying phenomenon of gender imbalance in local populations, also using small area Census data. Our conclusions, to be published in a report which like the CSJ we are unfortunately unable to share just yet, are in some respects even grimmer than theirs.

The CSJ has drawn attention to men deserts where children may never encounter a male role model from one end of the year to the next. But has the CSJ really identified the UK’s worst men deserts? Their press release in fact makes no reference to how many men are living in these areas, just to lone parent households. We have gone one better and looked at the gender balance in neighbourhoods across England and Wales (this took us about half an hour on Nomis).

We define a men desert as a Lower Layer Super Output Areas where the percentage of men in the population aged 16-74 is less than 40 per cent (on average, the percentage is a little under 50 per cent). Like CSJ, we find that thousands of children are growing up in these men deserts. It is true that there aren’t very many of these areas: only 14 out of the 35,000 LLSOAs in England and Wales. We’ve extended the range a little to include areas where men come to 41 per cent of the population in order to get a top 20 ranking comparable to the table in the CSJ’s press release (see the full table here).

Some will say these small numbers mean there isn’t a problem here, but like the CSJ, the CADT believes it is quite inappropriate to use statistical evidence to talk down the scale of social breakdown: on the contrary, statistics are for talking up problems, whatever their true scale. However low the numbers may appear, we should be very worried about the prospects of children growing up in these manless wastelands. Fortunately as there is a total of 2,600 households with children in all of these areas, targeted intervention should not be prohibitively expensive even in these difficult times.

But the CSJ have missed a much larger scale social disaster which CADT’s research identifies. There are many more areas which are “women deserts”, where the share of women in the adult population is 40 per cent or less. There are 224 women deserts in England and Wales, with a massive 34,000 households with children struggling to survive as the normal gender balance of the population is undermined. And the women deserts are much more extreme than the men deserts: in some areas (well, three in fact) over 80 per cent of the adult population are men, and in 30 areas more than 70 per cent. Contrast the men deserts where at worst only 64 per cent of the adults are women. Moreover while men deserts are mainly an urban phenomenon the women deserts extend their reach into the heart of middle England: in parts of Huntingdonshire and Wiltshire the male share of the population is a staggering 77 per cent. While like CSJ with men deserts, we have no wish to condemn the cultures of womanlessness of these communities, it would hard to overestimate the impact on children’s development of growing up in areas where female role models are so scarce.

So the CSJ’s concern with areas where children lack male role models should be extended to the vastly greater number of areas where they lack female role models.

Enough nonsense. Something has obviously gone seriously wrong here. What we have is not a problem of women deserts or of men deserts but of the inappropriate use of small area data. Lower layer super output areas contain an average of 672 households: a handful of suburban streets, or an area of a few hundred metres radius in densely populated urban areas. When we are dealing with very small areas, we expect to get extreme values at either end of the distribution. (Consider how much more extreme the figures might get as we reduce the geographical scale to a single street, or a single household.) Just about the dumbest thing you can do with this sort of data is rank the areas and then use the top or bottom of the rankings to make some general point. Which of course is what the CSJ has done, using the top of the ranking for the share of lone parents among households with dependent children to conjure up a fantasy of men deserts.

Given that we expect to get extreme results at small area level, why do we have more women deserts than men deserts? The figures are, we should imagine, largely driven by the proximity of army barracks and men’s prisons to some residential areas. (But note that these areas have similar numbers of households with children to men deserts - our women deserts are not just barracks and prisons!) Similarly for the tiny number of men deserts, a scattering of medium rise social housing blocks would be enough to produce extreme values at this geographical level. The good news is that kids can usually escape these men and women deserts by walking a couple of hundred yards. These sort of considerations explain why competent researchers tend to avoid drawing broad conclusions from the extremes of the distribution.

What about the idea that areas where there are a lot of lone parent families have few men? It is without foundation – in those relatively rare areas (1.6 per cent of all LLSOAs) where lone parents constitute 50 per cent or more of households with children, the average share of men in the adult population is just below the national average at 48 per cent.

In short, men deserts are an artefact of ideological presuppositions, statistical incompetence and media gullibility. Anybody who bought this pup from the CSJ should be ashamed of themselves. To news editors, we have a simple message: next time you’re offered startling statistics by the CSJ or any other factoid-pedlars, get in touch with the Centre for Applied Data Torture. We guarantee to top anything they have to offer.