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IFS and Marriage Foundation disagree as to whether 'marriage is good for children'

Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that policies encouraging marriage would have little impact

In an 'Understanding Society' research conference, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) will outline research suggesting marriage does not improve a child's outcomes.

The researchers of a paper - entilted 'Is marriage good for children? Outcomes for children born to married and cohabiting couples - Ellen Greaves, Alissa Goodman, Claire Crawford and Rob Joyce, note that children born to married couples have higher cognitive and social and emotional ability, on average, than children born to cohabiting couples. They have sought to investigate whether marriage, or the characteristics of couples that choose to marry, is the cause. They have found a large degree of selection into marriage (evident through differences in exogenous characteristics of parents) which accounts for the majority of difference in outcomes between children born to married and cohabiting couples in two complementary sources of data, the Millennium Cohort Study and British Cohort Study. This suggests, they say, that policies that encourage marriage would have a small impact, if any, on children's development.

Harry Benson of The Marriage Foundation, founded and chaired by Sir Paul Coleridge, responded:

"IFS have completely misconstrued their own evidence.

"The case for marriage has never rested on whether married couples make better parents than unmarried couples. The finding that couples tend to do equally well is a non-finding. What really matters is whether couples stay together as a couple. And it is here that IFS have got it so wrong.

"In their stability studies, IFS show that background factors, such as education and income, account for 42 percent of the stability gap between married and cohabiting couples. The remaining 58 percent of the gap is mostly down to relational issues, such as whether the birth was planned, and the quality of the relationship. IFS claim, without foundation, that these factors have little or nothing to do with marriage.

"A growing body of research into how couples commit shows that both cohabitation and marriage have potentially causal elements. Moving in together itself adds a "constraint" or "inertia" that can makes it harder to leave a fragile relationship in the short term. Marriage involves a decision about the future as a couple that brings clarity and removes ambiguity, in much the same way as planning to have a baby.

"But the biggest flaw in their argument involves the big picture. If we look at trends since the 1980s, family breakdown has doubled. Education and income have not collapsed, in fact they have improved. So unless couples have somehow become less capable of holding together a relationship, the one big social change that could possibly account for this huge increase in instability is the trend away from relatively stable marriage and towards relatively unstable cohabitation.

"Our previous research has shown that 93 percent of couples who remain together until their children are in their mid-teens are married. Just 18 percent of all couples with children aged 0-15 years old are still together but unmarried."