Tory marriage policies rely on “little evidence”


1:00 pm - July 7th 2010

by Sunny Hundal    


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Does being married rather than cohabiting lead to more stability in relationships between parents?

The government’s recent State of the Nation report stated:

Around 3 million children in the UK have experienced the separation of their parents. This is partly attributable to a rise in cohabitation, given the increased likelihood of break-up for cohabiting couples relative to married couples.

But a new report out today by the Institute of Fiscal Studies challenges this assertion.

The introduction states:

Our findings suggest that while it is true that cohabiting parents are more likely to split up than married ones, there is very little evidence to suggest that this is due to a causal effect of marriage.

Instead, it seems simply that different sorts of people choose to get married and have children, rather than to have children as a cohabiting couple, and that those relationships with the best prospects of lasting are the ones that are most likely to lead to marriage.

Our analysis suggests, therefore, that if more cohabiting parents decide to get married, it is very unlikely that a significant number would become more likely to stay together.

It also means that it is highly unlikely that the increasing rate of childbearing among cohabiting couples has caused an increased likelihood of break-up among parents.

This issue is important, because enhanced relationship stability is often considered to be one of the key pathways through which formal marriage between parents might lead to better outcomes for children.

To establish that this is the case, however, it needs to be clearly shown that marriage itself promotes relationship stability, rather than it simply being the case that people who are more likely to stay together are the ones who get married.

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The report can be downloaded from here.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


Didn’t this report come out just before the election? Or some precised (sp?) preview of it, anyway.

I still reckon the more liberal elements in the Tories are deeply unsure of all this marriage stuff. I must have hawked round here before now the FT article which quoted an anonymous Tory staffer admitting most of the CSJ’s output was “ropey” as regards quality of research. It might be worth someone less lazy than me looking at the original CSJ papers on this and following up all the refs. Apparently not all of them check out very well.

This might be a profitable place to exert pressure on the Tory half of the coalition. I’d dearly love marriage tax breaks to join the IHT rise on the bench.

different sorts of people choose to get married and have children, rather than to have children as a cohabiting couple

Different sorts of people? My partner and I have done both – first kid while cohabiting; second after getting hitched.

Does this mean we suddenly tranformed into “different sorts of people”.

3. Chaise Guevara

“Different sorts of people? My partner and I have done both – first kid while cohabiting; second after getting hitched.

Does this mean we suddenly tranformed into “different sorts of people”.”

No, it’s a necessary generalization because they’re dealing with country-level statistics. It’s about averages, that the average sort of person who gets married is different to the average sort of person who co-habits.

The point being that marriage doesn’t have to be a cause of a successful relationship, it may just correlate. It worries me that some people (not you) need an IFS report to point that out to them.

@3

I wrote a post about this a couple of years back, not really knowing anything much about it, but suggesting this basic point about correlation, and provoked outrage on ConHome. The key statement in the outrage piece, as I recall, was whether I “seriously thought the CSJ hadn’t thought of that”, or words to that effect.

Well, if I didn’t then…

@ 3

I’m not sure that nationwide statistics are much use here. The factors affecting how successful a relationship is are many and various. Individual psychology, economic circumstances, family background will all have some effect.

My own hunch (based not just on gut feeling but also on personal observation and more than two thousand years of historical commentary) is that marriage does more than just correlate: it has (in many, maybe most) cases a real effect in strengthening relationships.

But then there are marriages and marriages. I’m surprised no one has done a real, in-depth study of this, distinguishing between teenage and more mature marriages, registry office and church wedding etc.

The other thing about this post that concerns me is that even if there are broadly two different sorts of people – marryers and cohabiters – then it doesn’t see to me necessarily a bad thing to use social policy to nudge people from one camp into the other, if there are real social gains to be had from doing so.

Jerry – nationwide stats really are interesting. It’s no tougher a problem than the many others that epidemiologists face every day, and if there really is a clear-cut benefit to marriage, it will show through.

The Conservative argument is that cohabiting couples are more likely to split up than married couples, and this is because marrying reduces the chance of a split.

What the studies have established is that cohabiting couples are more likely to split up. They haven’t demonstrated that if a cohabiting couple marries, their chances of splitting up decreases (which would be the rationale behind recognising marriage in the tax system, for instance).

Or, to put it another way – nobody’s shown that, if you have two relationships of equal strength, one married and one cohabiting, excluding all other factors, the married relationship is less likely to break down than the cohabiting relationship.

If that’s not the case to some degree, then the net effect of encouraging marriage through tax breaks or the like would be for the number of separations to stay the same (so making the exercise pointless) or even to actually increase (if there are further factors that make some relationships more likely to fail in a marriage situation).

Given the extreme social pressure /against/ cohabitation and any kind of relationship that isn’t a married one over the past couple of thousand years, plus the radically different life expectancies and the sheer impossibility of divorce under a catholic system, /and/ the question of whether a common-law marriage is equivalent to a legal marriage, trying to draw extrapolations from historical data is undoubtedly flawed – you’re not comparing apples with apples.

Nick @ 6

….which would be the rationale behind recognizing marriage in the tax system….

But that isn’t the rationale the Tories have used. They say their move is not about changing or influencing behaviour at all.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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  2. Nicole Healing

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  3. Jae Kay

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  4. Kelly

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  5. Jenni Jackson

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  6. sunny hundal

    New IFS report says Tory policies on marriage are based on "very little evidence" http://bit.ly/cE79Lh

  7. House Of Twits

    RT @sunny_hundal New IFS report says Tory policies on marriage are based on "very little evidence" http://bit.ly/cE79Lh

  8. Kai

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  9. Lisa Firth

    RT @sunny_hundal: New IFS report says Tory policies on marriage are based on "very little evidence" http://bit.ly/cE79Lh

  10. amol rajan

    told you so RT @sunny_hundal New IFS report says Tory policies on marriage are based on "very little evidence" http://bit.ly/cE79Lh

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  12. Jamie Potter

    RT @libcon New report: Tory policies on marriage based on “very little evidence” http://bit.ly/a1ZEdz

  13. Jane Watkinson

    RT @libcon New report: Tory policies on marriage based on “very little evidence” http://bit.ly/a1ZEdz

  14. Frieda_M

    RT @sunny_hundal: New IFS report says Tory policies on marriage are based on "very little evidence" http://bit.ly/cE79Lh

  15. Scott Redding

    RT @JaneWatkinson RT @libcon New report: Tory policies on marriage based on “very little evidence” http://bit.ly/a1ZEdz

  16. Andreas Paterson

    “@libcon: New report: Tory policies on marriage based on "very little evidence" http://bit.ly/cE79Lh” – ..in other news Pope still Catholic.

  17. Helena Ingram

    RT @libcon: New report: Tory policies on marriage based on "very little evidence" http://bit.ly/cE79Lh

  18. Tom Sheppard

    Really hope that the lib dems speak out about marriage incentives:- Tory marriage policies rely on “little evidence” http://is.gd/djd9z





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