Can You Marry Your Way Out Of Poverty?

Is cohabitation the real problem here?

Marriage A-la-Mode, Plate I by William Hogarth.

Tory MP Michael Tomlinson has faced derision over comments he made to the House of Commons over the relationship stability of different socioeconomic groups. Or to put it bluntly:

Rich people get married and stay together, but poor people do not.

We can all see the inference being made here, and it’s obviously not that simple. But is there any truth at all to this claim? Let’s see what else he said.

“Because 87 per cent of high-earners marry, 24 per cent of low-earners marry — the rich get married and stay together, the poor don’t. Why does this matter? Because where there is poverty, family breakdown is often not far behind — and while poverty is often a driver of family breakdown, crucially so too is family breakdown a driver of poverty. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, children who experience family breakdown are twice as likely to fall into poverty.”

It’s like he’s almost getting it, but then he adds:

“It’s clear support to the family is important for social mobility and it’s also important for alleviating poverty. Marriage and the family should not be disappearing from Government policy-making. When it comes to the Budget and our public services, it seems to me that more can be spent on prevention and this would mean less is spent on the consequences of family breakdown.”

Ah. There seems to be a causal relationship implied here that may not exist. The Centre for Social Justice, a right-wing think-tank founded by the former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith (you’ll be hearing more of him shortly) said in their 2017/18 Annual Report:

“If you’re a poor child in the UK today, you’re overwhelmingly more likely to see your parents separate and your family break apart than the middle-class child down the road. By the age of five almost half of children in our poorest areas have seen their families break apart compared to only 16 percent of children in middle class homes.”
Marriage A-la-Mode, Plate II by William Hogarth.

There’s a lot to consider here, all adding up to the oft-repeated notion that we should aspire to a traditional marriage, have children and stay together for life. As anyone who has spent any time at all as an adult in the UK will notice, that’s not how things work out for most people. Is that a bad thing?

The way that Mr Tomlinson presented his argument could make you think so — indeed the Conservatives have always made a big deal in their campaigning over promoting marriage and “protecting” the family. Middle England would likely agree that getting married is the “proper” way of doing things, but much of Middle England hasn’t experienced life outside of their own bubble.

Mr Tomlinson’s speech is reminiscent of that given last year by Iain Duncan Smith, who claimed that unmarried young men were a problem for society because

“They are out, no longer having to bring something in for their family, so they can be released to do all the things they wouldn’t normally do and shouldn’t do, so levels of addiction, levels of high criminal activity, issues around dysfunctional behaviour, multiple parenting — all those things are as a result of the un-anchoring of the young man to a responsibility that keeps them stable and eventually makes them more happy.”
Marriage A-la-Mode, Plate III by William Hogarth.

I wonder what Britain’s “unanchored” young men feel about being associated with criminal activity, baby mamas and addiction. However, I would not take these words too seriously as he then used the totally relatable metaphor of golf club membership to illustrate his point:

“If something really matters to you in life, you commit to it. People join golf clubs and they sign up for the most absurd things that you have to do, wearing trousers, shoes, all sorts of things.”

As an individual who frequently wears trousers and shoes, and all sorts of things, I feel personally slighted by this remark. I’d also like to think I’d consider a long-term relationship more seriously than a golf club subscription, but hey, who am I to argue with this great moral arbiter?

Social conservatives (big ‘C’ and/or the small ‘c’ type) often look back to the 1950s, a time when marriage was more uniformly anticipated across all social classes, and divorce rates were lower (mostly due to divorce laws having not been reformed yet). The cultural pressures of the time meant that marriage was expected of young men and women by their families, and that to “live in sin” or have a child out of wedlock was a moral failing.

During the 1960s attitudes towards marriage and divorce relaxed. The 1969 Divorce Reform Act made divorce more accessible, yet still far more restrictive than in most Western countries. UK divorce laws have not changed since then; in order to divorce, the marriage must have “irretrievably broken down” based on either separation, desertion, adultery or unreasonable behaviour. There is no such thing as a “no-fault” divorce in the UK.

Marriage A-la-Mode, Plate IV by William Hogarth.

Obviously the inability to get a divorce played a major role in 1950s marriages lasting. People remained in unhappy and/or abusive unions because the law required that they do so. Very wealthy people could petition for a divorce, but it was well out-of-reach of most citizens. The pressure to get married, added to the inability to seek a divorce, meant that people had to make do with their situation.

It could be argued that the rising divorce rate is a good thing, ending miserable and violent relationships and allowing people another opportunity at building a family. Cohabiting couples have it a lot easier when they end their relationships, and that may be an important factor in why they are less likely to stay together than married couples — because they don’t have to. It doesn’t mean the married couples are any happier or more committed.

So then, are the rich more likely to get married and stay married, while the poor cohabit and split up more easily? Just in terms of getting married alone, yes — rich people are more likely to be married than poor people. But why, and what does it mean? We can’t tell just from the numbers.

A recent study from Cornell University investigated the reasons why cohabiting couples go on to marry or not, and found that the primary driver was wealth. But there’s more to it. The study’s findings support the idea of “the marriage bar,” a theory that the closer a couple is to reaching the economic standards associated with marriage, the more likely they are to get married. Poorer couples do generally want to get married, but are delaying marriage until they feel they have the economic clout to do so. Those that remain poor for a long time are therefore less likely to marry.

Wealth also affects the divorce rate. Poorer couples are more likely to divorce than richer ones, suggesting that marriage itself is not the panacea for successful child-rearing that has been stated.

Marriage A-la-Mode, Plate V by William Hogarth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies went further than the preceding reports mentioned here, and analysed the issues contributing to relationship breakdown for both married and cohabiting couples. They were able to identify a number of confounding factors, and if these were accounted for, there was little difference in the likelihood of separation for married and cohabiting couples. The factors that had the greatest impact on relationship breakdown were related to the type of people who get married before they have children and those who cohabit — the people who are more likely to marry have already got a lot going for them anyway. Cohabiting couples are more unstable because of these external factors. It’s a very interesting report, which you can read here:

Most importantly, the IFS found “that if more cohabiting parents decide to get married, it is very unlikely that a significant number would become more likely to stay together”. Cohabiting works for some, and not for others. But cohabitation is overwhelmingly driven by poverty, not the other way round.

Mr Tomlinson and the Centre for Social Justice have reached the opposite conclusion — that if we encourage more couples to marry and stay together, families will not fall into poverty — a conclusion that is deeply flawed. Aside from the statistical analysis by the IFS, we are living in a time of increasing poverty, falling incomes and rising homelessness.

The external pressure applied by the Government’s austerity policies is a far greater risk to relationship stability than whether or not couples decide to marry. We already know that poorer married couples are more likely to divorce anyway.

The worst thing is that these austerity policies cost more to implement than they save, and are a purely ideological choice. Like the Conservative Party’s views on marriage, it is a policy based not on evidence, but dogma. If the Tories want to prevent family breakdown, they need to change the crushing benefits regime and help families to access the help they are entitled to. Helping couples reach the level of security needed for a lasting marriage is the key to stable families, not touting marriage as a solution for all of society’s ills.

Marriage A-la-Mode, Plate VI by William Hogarth.