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6 April 2011

Measuring marriage won’t stop child poverty

The government’s new policy of using the relationship status of parents/carers to measure child pove

By Dalia Ben-Galim

Buried away on page 52 of the government’s new 79-page child poverty strategy are plans to measure family structures. The inclusion of this new indicator is baffling. It is the first time that the government will monitor relationships. And this new focus is at odds with other indicators and the government’s flagship social mobility strategy, which emphasise the importance of what parents do rather than who parents are.

Relationships do matter and marriage is a choice for many. But the evidence on how marriage connects to the child poverty agenda is less clear. There is evidence of correlation, but that shouldn’t be confused with causation.

IPPR research shows the importance of the quality of relationships. Warmth, love and spending quality time together matters. It is the quality of relationships that should matter. For some couples that will result in marriage or civil partnerships; for others it won’t.

But the connection between child poverty and relationship status is contentious. With high employment rates, a strong welfare state and good childcare, family structures become far less important. Living in a dual-earner household – whether married or cohabiting – reduces the risk of child poverty to close to zero. But even for lone parents, the experience of the Scandinavian countries shows that poverty risks are hugely diminished by universal childcare services and an active welfare state.

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The government’s new indicator on family structures will measure the proportion of children living in relative poverty by the relationship status of their parents – couples who are married/in a civil partnership, cohabitating couples and lone parents. It sits alongside, and seemingly carries similar weight to, other indicators of relative and absolute poverty in the Child Poverty Act.

Conversely, the government’s child poverty strategy introduces other valuable indicators, such as in-work poverty, that are underpinned by strong evidence. IPPR’s research has highlighted the risks associated with in-work poverty and the need for policy to focus more clearly on job sustainability and advancement. And today, the institute has published Parents at the Centre, which makes policy recommendations that focus on high-quality and accessible early-years provision that can have a significant impact on progress towards the child poverty target.

Eradicating child poverty is about more than just money and income. We need to develop and implement progressive policies that invest in the under-fives, support children’s centres to remain universal and tackle in-work poverty. But policy also needs to catch up with and reflect reality: stepfamilies are the fastest-growing family type.

So, as this new measure of family structure goes almost unnoticed, it suggests that the government may be advocating “policy-led evidence”, trying to generate data for marriage tax breaks that lack support across government. The child poverty agenda should not be used as a pawn in that debate.

Dalia Ben-Galim is associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.