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14 May 2019

Divergent family fortunes

Family structures and environments may have profound effects on inequalities, not least by helping to shape the opportunities and outcomes of the next generation.In the US, well-known sociological research by Robert Putnam has documented a bifurcation in family structures and behaviours, whereby the children of richer, more educated parents grow up in stable homes with parents who spend both money on them and quality time with them; whilst children from poorer backgrounds increasingly grow up in more insecure chaotic environments. Meanwhile, economists have shown that in US areas hit by trade shocks, these seem to have contributed further to falling rates of partnership and to more children growing up in single-parent families.

As in other areas, while the UK may not yet be seeing bifurcations on the same scale as the US, there is evidence of it being further along that road than its continental neighbours. In the UK, a significant proportion of children (about one in six in 2017, according to ONS birth statistics) are born into households with no fathers present – a considerably higher proportion than seen in most of Europe and a phenomenon heavily concentrated among those with less income and education. There are dramatic geographic variations too. About 7% of children are born into these family settings in Windsor and Maidenhead compared with about a third of children in Liverpool and Middlesbrough. Research has shown that about eight in ten of these children live in households in poverty during their infancy, and nearly one in three of their mothers have no educational qualifications.

This pattern of family formation, along with other trends such as growing rates of parental separation, raises the question of whether these developments arise simply as a result of changes in cultural or social norms that are independent of the wider economic environment; or whether they relate to the accumulation of disadvantages such as a decline in good working-class jobs and secure incomes; or some combination of the two.

Changing family formation patterns along with the growth in the breakdown of cohabiting and marital unions can translate into more diverse, complex, transient and often inequitable family settings. How do these settings affect economic, social, emotional and health outcomes for the children and adults involved, and what are the long-term legacies? These are among the questions that we will look to tackle as part of the work of the Deaton Review.