Poor will always be with us

Posted on June 29, 2012 by


The present Conservative government wants to eliminate poverty, especially child poverty. It is starting a debate about the whole of the welfare system.

The previous Labour administration also wanted to eradicate poverty, and also especially among children. To that end it introduced a whole host of programmes and reforms but after 10 years poverty and child poverty (two somewhat nebulous terms) had actually increased under Labour (ref. UNICEF).

How can poverty increase when for more than a decade national resources and measures have been taken to reduce it ? The answer seems to lie in a combination of factors – some of which can be found in Population Trends No. 142 (“Changes in family structure in early childhood in the Millennium Cohort Study”, Winter 2010). [1] 

The intention of the last government was to make all types of unions (inc. heterosexual and homosexual) equal, of the same value and viable. But what can any government do when, independent of party dogma, Nature strikes back and marital status is found to dictate income levels.

To this end Nature has been aided and abetted by the totem of “equality” in the form of man-made legislation. No longer can a married man on the ‘average industrial wage’ pay little or no income tax as in the 1950s instead today’s two parent household has to depend on two incomes to maintain a basic standard of living, and the income tax ‘take’ is over 20%.

Income levels

Naturally, households which do not have two incomes are a). single persons, b). single mothers, and c). divorced mothers. Divorced fathers should be included here but they manage to achieve, in the main, income levels that take them out of poverty. Widows should be included here too but in many cases they have a death benefit payment from their husband’s insurance policy.

The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) has allowed some interesting comparisons (including income levels) to be made about the family environment that young children experience during the first five years of their lives. Economic well-being, disposable income and good standard of living all postively impact a child’s life experience.

The MCS is a recently launched, longitudinal and nationally representative cohort study that follows the lives of 18,818 children born in the UK in the period between 2000 and 2002. It permitted comparisons between married couples, those in a cohabiting relationship and lone single mothers – which one assumes includes divorcees and never-married women.

The data, divided into ‘sweeps’, revealed:

  1. At sweep 1, when the cohort children were on average nine months old, equivalised parental income for households who stayed married throughout the five years was £436 per week.
  2. Parents who remained in a cohabiting relationship earned £340.
  3. Those who remained lone parents earned £141.
  4. Therefore, even after taking account of different sizes and structures of households, there was nearly £300 difference in equivalised weekly incomes between those who remained married and those who remained lone parents.

The ‘always lone parent’ group also had lower incomes than those groups that experienced family changes. On the other hand cohabitees who married earned slightly more than those who stayed in an unmarried cohabiting relationship (£371 versus £340 per week), although this difference was not statistically significant. At nine months, coupled parents who became lone parents earned about £100 per week less than their equivalents who remained as couples (see Table below).

The progression of women towards a higher income is depicted in the Table below, i.e. “Household Characteristics at 9 months . . . . . “etc.

All of the trends above point to the view thatthe married man is the Engine of Wealth Creation and upon him depends an entire family’s standard of living (SOL).[2] Multiply that for an entire country and the difference to GDP and the disposable income driving both the supply and demand side of the equation becomes obvious.


Unfortunately, once one delves into the world of the Social Sciences all manner of number, averages and variance columns thrust themselves out of the earth.

By way of explanation, the last but one column in Table 5 (“Household Characteristics at 9 months, by typology of family change from birth to age 5”), shows the proportion of households where no parent had any educational qualifications when the cohort child was nine months old. This pattern of proportion outlined above, has a marked disadvantage for lone parent households. This, Population Trends says, could be partially due to their younger age profile. In the sample, lone parent households had 26% who had no formal qualifications. So one has to assume that 70%+ lone parent households had ‘GCSE’ or ‘A level.’ To make its case Population Trends states that over 96% (see 2.8%) had formal qualifications – but these may include a large proportion of ‘GCSE’ or ‘A level’ and not college degrees.

Are these reasonable assumptions since, having reached the age 25, formal education would have long stopped for both the typical lone mother and the allegedly highly skilled married woman ? Is it not just as likely to assert that married women have chosen marriage rather than college and that lone mothers have decided against both ?

To look at the longitudinal experience of poverty Population Trends using the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), constructed a persistent poverty score, flagging up when mean equivalised parental income was below 60% of the median at each sweep (see Table 6 “Longitudinal economic characteristic between 9 months and 5 yrs by typology of family change from birth to age 5”).

More than eighty percent (80%) of those thatmarry – and stay married – are never “poor”, compared with 64% of cohabiting women and only 9.7% of lone mothers who can make the same claim.

At the other extreme, 59% of lone mothers are always poor, compared with 8% for cohabiting women and half that 4% for married women (please bear in mind that in common with many other surveys the respondents were predominantly female). The full table is shown below and it soon become apparent that moving from a non-married status into a married status improves a woman’s income potential and moving out of marriage damages it.

The knock-on effects on the SOL for children do not have to be spelt out, yet for the past 40 years (since the Divorce Reform Act 1969) our free thinkers, radical feminists and law makers have been advocating precisely this choice of man-made poverty. So the question must be, just how does a lower SOL bring equality to women ?


Poverty and a low standard of living are not set in stone. They can be altered and the most cost efficient way of achieving change is not government involvement per se but would appear to be marital status.

Close to 60% of some households are ‘always in poverty’ yet if they were to copy the conduct of their cohabiting counterparts  and the more dynamic of their peers lone motherhood could be transformed into a vehicle of economic upward mobility. They could become the YUPPIES (Young Urban Professional) of the 21st century YEMMS (Young Economically Mobile Mothers).

These always lone mothersatevery time ‘sweep’ of the data showed up as ‘poor’ and only 10% never experienced poverty. By comparison, about 20% of ‘always married’ households experienced povertyatleastatone sweep, poverty was likely to be a transient state (only four per cent were ‘always poor’).

Cohabitees who never experienced poverty represented some 65% of always cohabiting households meaning that 35% of cohabiting households experienced povertyat some stage.

When cohabiting women altered/upgraded their status to married the ‘never poor’ rate increased to 72%, while the poor once held steadat17%. However, it is in the ‘twice poor’ and ‘always poor’ where the greatest impact can be seen from 9% to 6% and 8% to only 4% respectively, a fall of 50% over all the sweeps.

Conversely, the transition from cohabitee into lone motherhood sees the ‘always poor’ rate increase to 27%.

Lone mothers who choose cohabiting rather then marriage see a dramatic reduction in their chances of economic prosperity. Lone parents who went on to marry or cohabit had smaller chances of experiencing poverty than their ‘always lone parent’ counterparts. In the ‘always poor’ category lone mothers who move into cohobating areatrisk in 33% of instances but those who chose marriage areata 20% chance of being in the ‘always poor’ category.

The soundest advice to women economically speaking is therefore to swap out of one category into a higher one. this is all the more apt when one considers thatamong the groups thathad experiencedatleast one [economic] change, cohabitees who married did particularly well, with 72% of them never experiencing poverty.

  • “This is better than the ‘always cohabiting’ but still not as high as the ‘always married’ group. . . . . Therefore, having two partners in the household appears to provide a safety net against persistent income poverty.”

Intriguingly, part of the problem appears to be thatthose couples whose relationship breaks-up, appear to be already economically poorer before the actual separation occurs.

The family is dead

The end of marriage has frequently been proclaimed but defiantly has never actually arrived. Marriage has been described as past it usefulness by those who should know better, e.g. Brenda Hoggett, who as a Law Commissioner in charge of family law proudly did her best to destroy it. Family law, she wrote in her 1980 essay, ‘Ends & Means: The Utility of Marriage’:

  •  “. . . . no longer makes anyattempt to buttress the stability of marriages or any other union”.

In “Ends And Means: The Utility Of Marriage As A Legal Institution”, edited by J.M. Eekalaar and S.N. Kats she spells out her, and the law’s, views of marriage:

  • “The courts have abandoned the concept of breach of matrimonial obligations–and their powers of adjustment of property interests in the long term are now so extensive thatordering one spouse from his own home no longer seems so drastic. Far from ordering spouses to stay together, courts are increasingly able and willing to help them separate.

This was the fashionable but simplistic ‘equality for women’ view of the time and little did they realise thatthe mechanics of life and living standards inextricably depended on everything they wanted to tear down.

From the 1980s to the present day all manner of government papers including ‘Population Trends’ have follow the same thread with the No. 142 edition stating as many of its predecessors have that:

  • “. . . the traditional family structure with a married couple and their co-resident children is declining, largely due to an increase in the number of households containing cohabiting or lone parents.”

What they fail to mention is thatthis decline still represents the majority is actually holding pretty steady and thatthe increase in cohabiting totals no more than 11%. They also fail to mention it s transitory nature. As we have seen from the data above measuring cohabiting is almost futile since much of it evolves into other modes e.g. marriage.

However, in the 30 years since the 1980s, the general debate about the large societal changes has widened, especially as they impact children and the wider community.

Population Trends No. 142 points to “a number of studies which have shown that children growing up with two continuously married parents do better than children in lone parent families on a range of cognitive, emotional and developmental outcomes, both in childhood and adulthood.” [3] In the 1980s this was not an accepted view.

It also points to the effect and legacy left to children of cohabiting couples:

  • “ . . . children of cohabiting parents appear to have poorer outcomes than those of married parents. For example, they are more likely to experience behavioural and emotional problems and have poorer school engagement (Brown 2004).”

With the help of the ‘MCS’,  Population Trends is confident enough to believe that few studies have access to such a rich enough dataset to be able to distinguish between several different typologies of family change. Potentially, LongitudinalUK data is able to describe the changing family environment of young children and in understanding the relationships between family structure and outcomes for family members (what it currently does not measure in any form is contact arrangements by days and weeks).

Many studies of families implicitly assume that the family environments are fairly static over their childhood, or that, at most, allowance is only needed for a single event such as parental divorce or remarriage (e.g. Kiernan, 1997).

However, in reality with the fluidity given to family forms, children are now likely to experience a variety of family structures before adulthood. Intact and non-intact families may go through a series of mini-crisis. Children in non-intact families especially may go through crisis of a different order of magnitude. They may experience a series of transient substitute fathers figures (the mother’s new boyfriends) and a litany of changes of addresses and schools.

Despite the general impression thatdivorce is common place, the results contained within Population Trends No 142 (pub’d 2010) show that children who were born to married parents had the highest chance of still being in the same family structure at age five (91% compared with 54% of those born to cohabiting parents and 57% of those born to lone parents). [4]

The absence of lone mothers giving their children the best start in life must be traced back, it has to be said, to the conventional wisdom adopted in the 1970s that fathers made no difference to how children were brought up or on their ‘outcomes.’

This false information was propagated atevery consumer level week after week for years explains the lack of ambition among lone mothers. This general malaise is not found among lone fathers (as Population Trends highlights repeatedly in their editions from the 1990s).

Among both lone mothers and cohabiting parents about 43% and 46% respectively of children born to these two categories had experienced a change in family structure by year 5. This would indicate thatchildren born to these forms of motherhood experience similar levels of disruption.

Distorting data

It would be a singular delight if these MCS numbers could be relied upon as a representative sample but, true to form, British statistics are never quite whatthey seem. The MCS which covers 18,818 children born in theUKover the period 2000–2002 sees it as perfectly legitimate to quite deliberately introduce distortions. These corruptions and biasing of data includes the type of electoral wards chosen to be included. The paper admits:

  1. The sampled wards over-represent areas with a high ethnic minority density,
  2. The sampled wards over-represent areas with high levels of child poverty,
  3. The sampled wards over-represent the three smallerUKcountries.

The paper goes on to say:

  • A ward was considered as having a high proportion of ethnic minority population ifatthe 1991 UK Census over 30% of the population was classed as Black or Asian.

How many wards in any town have an ethnic minority population of over 30% ? Only inner city wards and ghetto areas of 70% (characterised by low incomes and unemployment) fulfill this criteria. Affluent suburbs in Birmingham, Manchester or Leicester, for instance might have ethnic concentrations of over 50% but some will be below 30%.

British statistics again disappoint in their lack of objective masquerading as empirical research when one reads that:

  • “The study mainly consists of interviews with the main carer. This was the mother in 98% of cases.”

Given the supposed reticence of Asian women and that98% of respondents were women how much reliance can be placed on the data when for tens of thousands of Asian women they neither speak nor write English and the majority of the remainder it is only used as a poorly understood second language.

The academics have forgotten that for most form-filling Asian women get their children or husband to fill in the answers for them.

This point is brought home in the ONS publication ‘Equality Impact Assessment’ which points out  that people exist who do not speak English and that in some communities, such as Bangladeshi, people speak one language and read in another language (and neither are necessarily in English. [5]   And, of course, there are people in all communities, including the white Christian tradition with either low English literacy levels or none.


[2] See ref by George Gilder, Daniel Amneus, Patricia Hewitt, Patricia Morgan.

[3] Reviews of the literature includes Amato and Keith 1991; Aquilino 1996; Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale et al. 1998; Amato 2001; Amato 2005.

[4] http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/population-trends-rd/population-trends/no–142–winter-2010/index.html

[5] See ‘EIA Version 1 – August 2008’ precursory work for the 2011 Census

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