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23 June 2022

Families and inequalities

Families play a fundamental role in nurturing, socialising and supporting children until at least they become independent, and they in turn become the citizens, workers and parents of tomorrow. Yet not every family is able to provide the same level and type of resources and opportunities for their children. Furthermore, in recent decades, families have become more diverse, fragile and complex, which may have amplified inequalities in children’s life experiences and outcomes.

In Britain, there have been marked changes in partnership and parenthood behaviours. People have been marrying later and divorcing more, and cohabiting to a greater extent either as a prelude to marriage, instead of marrying or between marriages. Lone-parent families have become more prevalent arising from divorce, the break-up of cohabiting unions and a tendency for women, particularly young women, to have children on their own. Partnerships between men
and women have become more varied in type and more fragile, whilst parenthood is being postponed, being avoided by a growing minority and occurring more often outside of marriage.

In this chapter, our focus is on families with children. We examine whether there are discernible socio-economic gradients in the recent changes in partnership and parenthood behaviours. We also assess the extent to which these family developments and the attributes of the families in which children are born and reared contribute to disparities in their lives and their future life chances, with a particular focus on income, mental well-being, parenting and parental
relationships. We draw on an extensive literature from a range of disciplines and provide new analyses where appropriate.

  • Inequalities in children’s lives begin at home. Parental socio-economic resources, parental mental well-being, parental relationships and quality of parenting create disparities between families, which have repercussions for children’s development and their subsequent life chances.
  • There are marked educational disparities to the changes in partnership and parenthood behaviour that have occurred over recent decades. Graduates compared with their less qualified peers are more likely to postpone childbearing and to have their children within marriage, are less likely to separate, and marry similarly highly qualified partners, thus making
    them better placed to provide the resources and stability that enhance children’s development.
  • A notable hallmark of British families is their greater fragility and complexity as compared with families in other western European countries. More children are born into lone mother families and there are higher rates of parental separation. Forty-four per cent of children born at the beginning of this century had not lived with both their biological parents throughout their childhoods.
  • Parental separation lowers the well-being of families and diminishes the resources available to children, with legacies that reverberate into adulthood. Even children from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to have lower educational attainment and incomes in later life than similar children whose parents remain together.
  • A rarely highlighted feature of family formation in the UK is the extent to which children are born to parents who are not living together at the time of the birth. Around 20% of first-born children and 16% of all children are to parents in this family setting. These children have the most unequal starts in life and unstable family lives. They are remarkably geographically concentrated in areas of high deprivation, and are a particular feature of the former industrial regions of the country.
  • Family economic circumstances and parental mental well-being separately and collectively diminish the cognitive and emotional development of children in the early years. Poverty is more strongly related to children’s cognitive development, and parental mental health to children’s emotional and behavioural development, and both impact on the quality of parenting. Poverty and mental health are also interrelated, as becoming poor increases the risk of parents developing mental health problems. Longer exposures to either amplify the negative consequences for children.
  • The quality of parenting substantially improves the odds of children living in disadvantaged circumstances performing better at school. Amongst the poorest of families, where children had high levels of positive parenting, 58% had a good level of achievement in their first year at school compared with 19% of those with low-quality parenting. The quality of parenting also
    mattered amongst the non-poor families, where the analogous proportions were 73% and 42%. Good parenting may help redress the effects of poverty, but poverty and parenting both matter for how children are doing.
  • A multitude of studies have shown that the most influential factor relating to family formation and dissolution and children’s development is the educational attainment of their parents. Undoubtedly, improving education is fundamental, as it is a key backstory of parental legacies. But improving the lives of families also requires more current and direct policy interventions such as a reduction in child poverty, improvement to mental health services, and provision of parenting and relationship education and support.

Cite this as:

Kiernan, K., Crossman, S. and Phimister, A. (2022), ‘Families and inequalities’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities,