A NEW report suggesting that marriage is “alive and well” among the rich, but not the poor, is evidence that the “liberal elite” are hypocrites, a researcher said this week.
“It’s very striking that the liberal elite will happily tell everyone that it does not matter if you marry or not, yet nearly 90 per cent, even today, get married if they have children,” Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, said on Tuesday.
“They talk a good liberal story, but act in very conservative ways for themselves. . . These modern-day Pharisees tell us how to live our lives, but live their own lives in a completely different way.”
The report from the Marriage Foundation, The Marriage Gap, looks at mothers with children under the age of five. In 2012, 87 per cent of mothers with an annual household income of above £45,000 were married.
This figure compares with 25 per cent of those with an income of below £14,000. Using data from the Family Resources Survey and the General Household Survey, the report argues that the move away from marriage is spreading from low- to middle-income groups.
For middle-income mothers, the proportion who are married was 54 per cent in 2012; this is down from 84 per cent in 1994.
“Most better-off families get married, giving themselves the best chance of remaining stable, intact, and better off,” the report concludes. “In sharp contrast, most worst-off families do not get married, thereby increasing their risk of not staying together and remaining worse off.”
While statistics suggest that married parents are more likely to stay together than cohabiting ones, the claim that marriage has a causal effect on the stability of a relationship is hotly contested.
In 2010, for example, researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, argued that there was “very little evidence”. Much of the difference in stability could be explained, they argued, by “pre-existing differences”, including education, income, the age of the mother, and whether the pregnancy was planned.
Mr Benson is scathing about “this nonsense that people spout about ‘correlation is not cause’. What they really want you to do is to say cause is not possible; and of course it is more than possible — it is highly probable, and really difficult to disprove. The burden of proof is not on marriage to prove itself, but on cohabitation to prove itself rather than just pretending it is somehow the equal.”
While income and education “undoubtedly make some difference”, he believes strongly that marriage itself has a protective power, partly through the clarity it provides: “There is always an element of ambiguity in relationships unless you express some clarity, and marriage does that.” Proposing marriage sends a signal, he argues; it “removes anxiety”.
Cohabitation is both easy to enter and likely to produce “inertia”, he argues, making it hard for couples to leave. Thus “many couples who might not have otherwise in the past have kept their relationships going get sucked into having babies.” It also reduces the willingness to marry, he argues, and increases the amount of “negative behaviour”.
An earlier Marriage Foundation survey reported differences in the reasons that cohabitating couples give for remaining unmarried. While women said that it was because they hadn’t been asked, men cited the cost — potentially an “excuse”, Mr Benson suggests. “There is an argument that when men have got their way by moving in, then why on earth would they need to get married?”
Sir Paul Coleridge, founder of the Marriage Foundation, warned this week that children were “the main casualties” of the decline in marriage, and questioned “the reluctance among policy-makers to recognise the evidence, and so recognise the value of marriage”.
“Marriage is not the solution to everything, and I am not for one second dogmatic about that,” Mr Benson said. “But if you care about the poor, you should definitely care that people on lower incomes have turned their backs on the best means of protecting themselves in terms of family life.”
Weddings did not have to be expensive, he said — “We have been conned into thinking that you need to spend a fortune” — and the Church could make “an enormous difference” in reducing costs and providing support and encouragement to couples.