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Family matters after all

Evidence shows that marriage results in more stable families that are better for children. So why will no one admit it?

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

Three years ago, when our newly proclaimed Prime Minister Julia Gillard was moving into the Lodge with her partner Tim Mathieson, I raised questions about this pioneering de facto first couple. I suggested there are reasons why we might be wary about the long shadow cast by such a prominent role model’s private behaviour.

Of course, it’s no big deal for Gillard — then a 48-year-old woman — to live with a man. Like most people nowadays, I have spent many years in de facto relationships. My point was that cohabitation carries risks for younger women seeking to marry and have children, who can miss out on these goals by wasting time in uncertain relationships where mutual expectations are not established. An even more pressing issue is the impact on children of being born in these far less stable de facto families.

Never, in 40 years of journalism, have I attracted so much venom. ‘Put your head in the oven, you old bag!’ was one of many ferocious comments published in response to the piece. A flood of furious blog entries and rebuttals appeared, expressing horror at the suggestion that de facto relationships were any less committed, less stable than marriages. Catherine Deveny, in her usual measured style, referred to me as an ‘uptight white honkie’.

The burning issue at the heart of that controversy was family structure: the idea that some relationships, some types of family are better than others. Better not in a ‘moral’ sense but rather that some choices reduce chances of a better life, particularly for children. For the past 40 years there has been a concerted effort to deny the growing evidence of this case, the solid research showing that marriage does result in more stable partnerships than cohabitation. And that children in single-parent families are less likely to thrive than those with two parents, particularly married parents. The writing is on the wall that family structure is one of the key factors in predicting the future lives of our children. Yet most are still determined to ignore what they see as a most unpalatable truth.

That’s hardly surprising. We now have generations of people resentful of any suggestion that they missed out by being raised by their own wonderful single mums. Our media, particularly the ABC, is full of well-educated single mothers doing a great job caring for their children who naturally resist public discussion of these issues. Yet you hear a very different story from people at the coalface: social workers, welfare providers, professionals working for DOCS or in Family Law. They witness every day the impact on children of the casualisation of family relationships in less-advantaged communities and know all too well the toll it is taking.

These issues were highlighted in a recent report, Knot Yet, from the Washington-based Brookings Institute, looking at the social impact of the delay in the age of first marriage, which has leaped from the early twenties to almost 30 over the past 40 years. The report found interesting patterns of winners and losers from this shift — for instance, the delay means well-educated women end up with higher incomes.

The most telling detail to emerge from the Knot Yet report is the divide that has appeared in marriage patterns between different socio-economic groups. Despite the delayed timing, most well-educated women do still marry and then have their children. But less-educated women are fast giving up on marriage, choosing instead to have children in de facto relationships and often ending up as single mothers. This dramatic change in marriage patterns is adding to the gap between the haves and have-nots. Well-educated women and their children are better off and live more stable lives, while the marriage choices of less-educated women increase their families’ disadvantage.

Of course, there are well-educated de facto couples with lasting relationships and thriving children. But the broader patterns tell a different story, just as the 90-year-old who smokes a pack a day has no bearing on the link between cigarettes and health risks.

For all the talk about gay marriage, these are the marriage patterns most affecting our society yet they hardly ever make it onto the public agenda. There is solid evidence documenting the disadvantages associated with these changing family structures. Using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, Lixia Qu and Ruth Weston from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found young families with cohabiting parents are nearly three times more likely to break up than married families: 19 per cent of the cohabiting-parent families compared with seven per cent of the marrieds separated within four years. The same research showed that children in cohabiting families lag behind children with married parents in overall socio-emotional and general development, learn slower, display more conduct problems and experience poorer parenting.

So why does that piece of paper provide the extra glue that makes married families more stable? Well, overseas research suggests many cohabiting relationships lack the mutual long-term commitment that underpins the start of most marriages. Many people slide into cohabitation without ever making the explicit decision to commit: someone’s lease runs out or lovers get tired of rushing home for fresh underwear. Relationships based on non-decisions, on sliding rather than deciding, have less sticking power.

The AIFS researchers have presented and published their findings, yet these have sunk without a trace. Not that I would imagine the AIFS is keen on trumpeting these results. Back in the 1990s researchers in Western Australia were conducting a major longitudinal study identifying factors affecting the mental health of children. What emerged as one of the most significant was family structure: children in sole-parent families were far more at risk of mental health problems than children with two-parent families. One of the researchers confessed to me that he’d shuddered when he saw the message that I’d called following the release of the family structure data. The researchers were desperately hoping these socially unacceptable findings would fly under the media radar.

The impact of these social changes has been well documented, although our society has proved remarkably determined to turn a blind eye. Remember when Bob Hawke made his famous election pledge that no child would live in poverty by 1990? One good reason that never happened was that the shift towards the current family patterns really started to kick in: the 1990s saw a staggering 70 per cent increase in the ex-nuptial birth rate. By the end of the decade, more than one in four children were born out of wedlock and as a result, poverty became their destiny. ANU economics professor Bob Gregory showed that more than three-quarters of the alarming increase in jobless families which occurred at that time was due to this explosion in single-parent families.

The same changes were taking place in the US, but woe betide anyone who spoke out about them. In May 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a speech which mentioned a popular sitcom, Murphy Brown, in which the title character, a news anchor, decided to have a child outside marriage. ‘Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong,’ claimed Quayle, arguing for the importance of fathers. In the furore that followed, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a heretical article in the Atlantic entitled ‘Dan Quayle was Right’, which documented data on the disadvantages for children of sole-parent families. Last year’s 20-year anniversary was marked by numerous articles showing just how right Quayle had been. Economist Isabel Sawhill, writing in the Washington Post, noted that kids raised by married parents simply do better. They do better in school, are less likely to be arrested or get pregnant early or commit suicide and end up achieving and earning more.

In Australia, politicians had gone to ground on the issue a lot earlier. In 1972, an intriguing discussion between Germaine Greer and Margaret Whitlam was published in the National Times. Whitlam, whose husband had just become prime minister, was outspoken in her criticism of ex-nuptial births. When Greer confessed she was considering having a child on her own, Whitlam was forthright: ‘Well, I think that’s just a selfish thought.’

Later in the interview, she relented a little: ‘It may be all right for people who are well known and who have position and who can organise themselves … but it’s not OK for everybody.’

Very soon it became OK. The early Seventies were a turning point. Up until this time single mothers and their children were stigmatised, the children were legally labelled ‘illegitimate’ and there was very little welfare support. Within months of Margaret Whitlam’s confrontation with Greer, her husband’s government introduced sole-parent welfare payments, social attitudes began to change and the scene was set for the rise in single motherhood.

Margaret Whitlam’s argument nailed the key issue: that it’s one thing to become a single mother when you are comfortably off and established in your life and career but quite another when you are living a disadvantaged lifestyle with slim chance of improving your situation. Then, having a child can only decrease your chances of a good life. And that’s the point that many commentators are determined to ignore. One shining example is Richard Glover, from ABC Sydney, who proudly boasts of his long-lasting de facto relationship. He has publicly taken issue with my reporting of research on this subject. ‘Do our children miss out on anything?’ he wrote, ‘Well, yes, Bettina … Principally, I think, they miss out on vases,’ he said, referring to his family’s lack of expensive crystal vases commonly given as wedding presents.

It has been extraordinary witnessing the retreat from any public discussion of these issues. Note how rarely questions are now asked about the living arrangements of celebrities who proudly parade children born in all manner of casual relationships — with never a question asked by the welcoming media. In 2002 tennis star Pat Rafter was named Australian of the Year. Just before the big announcement, it was
discovered that Rafter’s girlfriend was pregnant. The Australia Council proclaimed they were delighted and sure enough, the pregnancy was embraced as part of the good news story celebrating Mr Nice Guy’s award. In interviews with the sporting hero, the ‘m’ word was never mentioned. Then came the intriguing moment when a young girl called in on a 2UE talkback session and asked Rafter whether he planned to marry.

The child mentioned the unmentionable — echoes of the Emperor’s New Clothes. ‘Do you want me to?’ asked Rafter. He ended up telling the girl he would marry, and did so two years later.

The cultural shift had occurred, from condemning an unwed father to deciding it is wrong to do anything but celebrate his good fortune. ‘We are over asking that type of question. Everybody can live their own lives these days,’ one ABC radio producer told me at the time.

That would be just fine if these lifestyle decisions weren’t impacting adversely on children — not that Rafter’s offspring were likely to suffer, but once again there is that long shadow. This was at a time in our social history when all the talk was about deadbeat dads who sought to avoid parental responsibilities, with the blowtorch being applied to enforce penalties for what was then an extraordinarily punitive child support regime. How do we convince young men that a casual approach to parenting is not acceptable and not in their future children’s interests when their sporting hero’s unmarried paternity meets with national celebration? No wonder the Child Support Agency finds de facto dads are more likely to renege on their financial obligations.

Writing recently about the Knot Yet report for the Australian Magazine, I interviewed an extraordinary Newcastle woman, Lee Wilton, who had four children in and out of an unstable de facto relationship, spending long periods as a struggling single mother. Amazingly she found her way through, acquired an education and is working towards a social welfare degree. Now working with disadvantaged families, she doesn’t understand why there isn’t more public education about the adverse consequences for young people of drifting into unstable relationships without making careful decisions about mutual commitment or having children, let alone marriage.

‘It’s very much the norm and totally accepted. I don’t think people realise the impact for the children of those non-decisions,’ she says. Non-decisions which include unplanned pregnancies: the Knot Yet report notes the high incidence of unplanned pregnancy in these relationships, with half of all births to unmarried twentysomething women ‘unintended’.

Women in the affluent Western countries have long been happy to preach to those in developing countries about the importance of stable relationships and planned pregnancy as the key to the destiny of women and children. So how is it that this vital lesson seems to have been forgotten when it comes to the well-being and future of Australia’s less educated women and children?

Bettina Arndt is author of The Sex Diaries and, more recently, What Men Want.

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