strange_raptors: Profile shot of Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena. (Utena)
[personal profile] strange_raptors
Casually procrastinating reading through Guardian articles today, I came across a story on the BBC2 program "Fix my family". Most of the stats used in the article came from the Centre for Social Justice (a cringeworthy name if ever there was one) -- for example that trend data shows that 48% of children born today will experience their parents breaking up (let's ignore the slight dubiousness of trend data). This is bad because:
"... our polling shows that a child not growing up in a two-parent family is 75% more likely to fail at school, 70% more likely to be a drug addict, 50% more likely to have an alcohol problem, 40% more likely to have serious debt and 35% more likely to experience worklessness."
They then say:

"Moreover, Britain's peculiarly high levels of family breakdown are acutely concentrated in the most deprived communities."

This all sounds pretty bad, Best get the marriage-mobile started! Now, as far as I can tell this is all based on the Centre for Social Justice's report "Breakdown Britain: Family Breakdown" (pdf) published in 2006, which, as far as I can tell, is mostly about extolling the virtues of marriage. No doubt, Iain Duncan Smith was using this report as the basis for his "tax breaks for married couples" plan (convenient, since he wrote a forward for the report).

What the report is lacking, as far as I can tell from my brief skim through (and ctrl+f-ing the word "account" and "accounting"), is any comparison between family break-up in families in poverty and family break-up in families not in poverty. They do, in section B's prologue, set out their disclaimer:

"As far as possible, we aim to avoid the common error of implying causation from correlational data. Family formation, stability and breakdown are prime areas for such error. For example, supposing that national census surveys show that poverty levels tend to be higher in areas where there is more divorce, it would be equally wrong to conclude from this evidence alone either that “Poverty causes family breakdown” or that “family breakdown causes poverty”. It is possible that one causes the other. However it is also possible that both factors are caused by some unmeasured third factor, such as education, social attitudes, mental health or provision of public services. This is known as spurious correlation. Even if there is a causal connection its direction may be difficult to decide, or causality may run in both directions. Thus, poverty may lead to breakdown because it creates stress between family members, whilst family breakdown may itself lead to poverty.

Nonetheless, there are statistical methods available to
suggest how one factor does predict or cause a particular
outcome. This usually comprises a body of evidence that
includes a detailed longitudinal analysis of individuals
over time, where a clear order of events can be established.
Such analysis may then show that “families in
poverty are subsequently more likely to experience family
breakdown” and/or that “families that break down are
subsequently more likely to experience poverty”. Even
then researchers may emphasise findings that support
their own hypothesis or personal bias and disregard
other equally valid findings. A careful reading of the
underlying analysis is always required where cause is

So, in which areas of the study do they try to take other factors into account? Apparently, "cohabiting people are more than twice as likely to split up than married people even when accounting for income and other socio-economic factors" [citing appendix 3] (incidentally, they repeat this statistic five times in the report). Then an actually relevant claim, "Children
in single parent households are twice as likely to be unhappy, have low self-esteem, or have mental health problems, even after taking demographic factors into account.". Then another irrelevance, "Married families are about twice as likely to remain intact than any other form, even after accounting for age, income, education, ethnic group, benefits receipt, and birth order.".

Now, it's very likely I'm being dense about this, but I tend to assume that if someone hasn't appended the words "accounting for [load of other really relevant stuff]" to their statistics, it's almost certainly the case that they haven't accounted for such things. If that's the case, then the data which this report was based on said something along the lines of:

1) Married couples stay together more than cohabiting couples (totally not a self-selecting sample).
2) Children in single parent households are twice as likely to be unhappy/slightly messed up - even when taking into account [load of other really relevant factors].

But wait! What's this? A small really relevant factoid hidden amongst pro-marriage rhetoric?

"If one looks at longitudinal studies of educational achievement then there is a small but discernible gap between children of intact families, and those that split up. However the gap is evident before the breakdown occurs." (my emphasis)

So, what could be happening is that children in unhappy families are unhappy and they stay unhappy even after their parents split up. The report says that this suggests that educational achievement and family break-up might be correlation, rather than purely causation. But then they sweep it under the carpet with a load of studies from US which show completely the opposite (conveniently enough).

I suppose what I really dislike about this report, and similar reports, is that they're not comparing the right things. They're doing the statistics wrong. Compare the behaviour of children from families who have broken up with families who have not yet broken up (or who should have but stayed together) -- that's the relevant dataset. And the only point in the report at which they do so, it shows that family break-up is not the cause of these problems. And yet! And yet,

"... we conclude that family breakdown, in all its forms, is occurring at a greater rate today than ever before, creating a cycle of dysfunction and instability. Family stability has been in continuous decline for four decades, driven by divorce in the 1960s/70s and cohabitation in the 1980s/90s."

And then we see their plans for the future, which look suspiciously like current Tory policy:

"First, we plan to explore rigorously what family-centred policies, rather than child-centred policies might look like.We are concerned that current policies, such as those encouraging the highest possible labour market participation for mothers (in the interest of alleviating child poverty) have not adequately considered the deleterious impact on families and relationships. The vital role of parenting cannot be outsourced to external providers or squeezed into ever tighter time slots."

We can read that as "it's all the fault of these damned feminists who want to work when they should instead be staying at home raising kids". But it gets better.

"Second, we will emphasise prevention as well as cure. We will be looking at how to stabilise current families we well as how to re-establish stable family relationships and structures as a part of a socially responsible society. Marriage continues to offer the most stable and durable framework, but there is not a high level of awareness of these benefits."

Let's just ignore the whole self-selecting sample thing (which, tbh, has got tired of screaming and yelling and is curled up in a corner somewhere). I do believe the proposed tax breaks for married couples do come under "let's encourage people to get married". And finally,

"Third, we want to look closely at how we empower individuals, rather than the state, to raise their families and how to align services in a way that offers families genuine choice. If we are implicating the welfare state in the rise of family breakdown, we need to consider workable adjustments and indeed complements to it. The notion of the welfare society embraces a social responsibility agenda which begins to consider how to encourage people to make decisions based on the wider good of society and on deferred gratification rather than instant returns. It also draws in the wealth of talent and energy in this country’s voluntary sector organizations."

It already sounds like "big society" doesn't it? And I love the sudden leap that means the welfare state is responsible for all this.

I'm not really sure what to say in conclusion to all this, except that I wish people would do proper research. And that I wish government policy was based on such research.
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