Ethics & Morality

Without promoting marriage we cannot love the poor


Some truths are so blindingly obvious and yet, despite every reason to embrace them, we chose instead to turn our backs and walk the other way.

Take the case of marriage. Over the centuries its form and substance have morphed, but throughout all of these permutations it has remained a bedrock of societies around the globe. Polygamous, arranged and now same-sex marriage have all been embraced at various times. The place and status of women within the institution have drastically changed, too.

A legally-binding union between individuals sealed through the act of sex has been the foundation from which children have been expected to grow and develop. Even allowing for divorce, marriage has been seen as a place of permanence and stability. As an institution it has transcended race, wealth, class and religion. This has been the case throughout all recorded history – at least until the present age.

It is only in the last few years that we have seen seismic shifts in attitudes and practices toward the necessity for marriage. In this country, between 1850, when records began, until 1964, some 93 per cent of children were born within marriage. Fifty years on and we now find that almost half of British babies are born to unmarried parents. It will only be a short while until being born within marriage will put you in a minority.

As more and more children grow up outside of wedlock, the universal truth that marriage as an institution is good for our society is fundamentally challenged, if not irreversibly negated. We know that marriage is good not because it is the cultural norm, but because the evidence says so. It is not any kind of revelation: it has been proven empirically over many years. And still we find new research to reinforce it. Only last week the Marriage Foundation published statistics contrasting the family prospects for children born to married parents and those not (including cohabitation). The disparity is stark:

Currently, two thirds of women who get married and have children remain with the father for life. Among women who never marry, just one in ten will avoid splitting from their partner.

This is set to deteriorate at a rapid rate over the next few years. Only 5 per cent of the 48 per cent of 20 year-olds who will never marry are predicted to stay with their partners until their child hits their mid-teens.

The prospects of a secure upbringing for children of married families is not exactly fantastic, but it is even worse for their peers. Based on these predictions, which follow current trends, a GCSE class of 30 students will have at the most just one student whose biological parents live together outside of marriage.

What this means is that unless their parents are married it is highly probable that a child will either not ever live with their father or will go through their parents’ separating at some point as they grow up. And the consequences are serious. Data released this week has found that children experiencing separation are more likely to get into trouble at school, do worse in their exams, suffer from eating disorders and abuse drugs or alcohol. Children who experience broken family relationships are far, far more likely to live in poverty and suffer the wide-ranging consequences.

There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to the rules, but this is the state of play for hundreds of thousands of children who will take all of this through to adulthood and most likely end up doing to their children what was done to them.

The blindingly obvious truth is that we need marriage to be valued, encouraged and supported for society to be healthy. Logically, we should all care enough to make that effort because it affects us all. Instead, we have bought into a lie that has been both spread subconsciously and pushed by certain ‘progressives’ – namely that marriage is just a life-style option; unnecessary, restrictive or worse. ‘Saving yourself for marriage’ is now an alien concept, confined to the dark ages and archaic religious thinking. Stability and security have been supplanted by individualism and a rejection of responsibility.

Does anyone care? Is it only in our churches and other places of religion that the virtues and expectations of marriage are acknowledged and appreciated? Is it only in places of worship that marriage as the better way still exists? And in how many churches will the biblical teaching regarding marriage be mentioned in hushed tones out of a desire to be inclusive and to avoid giving offence?

Politically, out of the three main parties at Westminster, only the Conservatives have made the case for government supporting the institution of marriage with the Married Couple’s Allowance. It is to be introduced next year, but it’s really little more than a token. Labour and the LibDems see any such policy as a type of social engineering and so to be avoided at all costs: they have vehemently opposed it.

However, by doing so, they cause more harm than good: they negate even their professed objective of being on the side of the poor and driving down social exclusion. This is most clearly demonstrated in the last Labour government’s implementation of Working Tax Credits. By neglecting the importance of the family structure and by failing to recognise marriage, the resulting system made it financially disadvantageous for couples to marry. For many couples on the lowest incomes it makes sense to live apart, as Working Tax Credits ensure that couples receive the same income as lone parents. This has resulted in a a far more detrimental form of social engineering than anything the Married Couple’s Allowance will ever produce.

The biggest fall in marriage commitments over recent years has been among the lowest socioeconomic groups. According to the Office for National Statistics (which divides the population into seven groups), in 2001, when the figures were first collected, those in the top category were 24 per cent more likely to marry than those at the bottom. Thirteen years later, that figure has rocketed to 48 per cent. Marriage is increasingly becoming the preserve of the well-off. Outside of the welfare system, marriage largely brings economic security. But within, it causes harm and brings uncertainty. And there is no doubt that the wealth gap between rich and poor is widening. Benefits and housing, which have traditionally been favourable toward young single mothers, have done nothing to help.

The result is a welfare system which, rather than building up those who need the most support, is seen to produce and perpetuate segregation and family instability. Those who defend the status quo are doing no favours to anyone.

With so many politicians afraid to discuss this topic, and too many opposed to any move to that strengthen the institution of marriage, it is once again left to a handful of think-tanks and those outside the political system to make the case. As we move towards next year’s General Election, it is a good a time for church leaders to be making a robust case for a sea-change in political and social attitudes. The Church has an authentic voice that can be used to champion what it knows to be good. The commotion and disquiet caused by same-sex marriage demonstrate the robust and passionate concern that many Christians hold for the sacred institution. This needs to be harnessed and directed towards reviving and supporting the bedrock of society, because ultimately marriage benefits everyone. If we don’t bother, there will soon be too few married couples to register its value or worth. And the poor will only get poorer.