Social research shows committed long term relationships are one of the most important factors in leading a happy and prosperous life
Much is said about the forces dragging people into poverty, but not much about what helps them escape it. David Cameron has, of late, started to list the new deadly sins: addiction, family breakdown, domestic abuse. While it’s quite right to confront such problems, there is another side to the debate.
“For me, nothing matters more than family. It’s at the centre of my life and the heart of my politics.”David Cameron
Dig deep enough in the figures, and you can see a pattern of behaviour among those who prosper, as well as those who don’t. In fact, four basic rules can be established. Those who observe them are highly unlikely to end up in poverty. Those who break them are unlikely to avoid it.
The Prime Minister has always been interested in such issues. Labour, he felt, made Britain economically richer but was blind to the social decay – so a Conservative government should take a wider view. Every time he tries to make this point, it ends rather badly; even his allies sniggered at the “hug-a-hoodie” agenda. In government, you need metrics: to measure something, then chase it. In America, scholars produce all kinds of studies about marriage and the importance of fathers; enough for Bill Clinton to build an agenda around. But in Britain, academics tend to regarded such issues as schmaltzy, Right-wing nonsense.
As a country, Britain is quite good at measuring poverty – even if we’re not quite as good at tackling it. But the answers are there, if you know how to look for them. So I asked Helen Jackson, a brilliant data analyst, to delve into the British Cohort Study, which keeps track of 17,200 children born in April 1970. We looked at those who had avoided poverty: did it matter if their father was rich or poor? Not so much. Did it matter if their parents read to them when they were younger? Only a bit. And anyway, no child can help such issues: you play the hand you’re dealt. But a lot depends on how you play it.
The first rule is to finish school: don’t drop out at 16. This wasn’t so important in the days when there were more manufacturing jobs and it was easier for teenagers to learn a trade. But today, the thousands who leave school with no qualifications will struggle to find a role in an economy bustling with the world’s workers.
The next rule is to avoid teenage parenthood – a rule that matters to women, but not really to men. It is, of course, quite possible to have a child at a very young age and then start a well-paid career afterwards. But, as you might expect, its far harder.
The third rule is to avoid long-term unemployment before your mid-20s. No one can help being made redundant: about a million jobs were shed during the crash. But taking another job, even lower-paying or part-time, is far better than signing on. Unemployment can become self-reinforcing after a certain period: those who stay active stand the best chance when the recovery comes. It’s bad enough being the victim of a slump. But it’s worse to be the victim of an unreformed welfare state, which can still ensnare those for whom it was set up to help.
But the fourth and final rule is rather different: to find love. Or, more specifically, end up in a long-term relationship. Getting married proved a relatively weak predictor of who ends up in poverty – perhaps because marriage and a long-term relationships are not always the same thing and a wedding ring is no guarantee of longevity. What matters is the ability to stick together. And when it comes to fighting poverty, this matters even more than finishing school.
For those who kept all four rules, the chance of falling into poverty by the age of 34 was just 13 per cent. For those who broke all four rules, it was 78 per cent. Obeying each rule significantly reduces the chance of poverty. A girl who quits school aged 16 but always works, and starts a family later in a stable relationship is less likely to be poor than a man who finishes school, but signs on the dole and doesn’t settle. So if the Prime Minister is looking for the four pathways out of poverty, here they are.
On the first three rules, things are looking up. Teenage pregnancy rates have fallen by about a third over the last five years; school dropout rates have halved. Iain Duncan Smith’s controversial welfare reforms have helped tackle unemployment so it is far harder, now, for anyone to stay on the dole for longer than a few months. Combine this with plunging rates of drunkenness and drug abuse, and suggests that Britain is entering a period of social repair.
But what about love? There isn’t a national breakup index: indeed, there’s very little known about the health of relationships. The stand-out conclusion of the 1970 Cohort study – that everybody needs somebody to love – doesn’t feature much in the debate about poverty. This perhaps explains why pop songs are so much more popular than government policies: they make more sense. The importance of relationships to a happy and prosperous life is known by anyone who listens to the lyrics of any song on Magic FM; it is a secret only to the policy wonks.
Mr Cameron has always been a great believer in the power of relationships, and keen to think of ways that government can help. A new breed of charities and think tanks has emerged to help him. I chaired a discussion held by one of them, Relate, earlier this week where Iain Duncan Smith announced plans to expand government-funded relationship counselling. All manner of ideas were discussed after his speech: should GPs intervene if they hear a patient’s relationship is on the rocks? Can the NHS cure a broken heart? Should it even try?
As Duncan Smith said, it’s too early to tell if government can do anything useful. But Mr Cameron’s approach is to try anyway; to pour money into schemes like his Healthy Relationships Fund and see if it can make any difference. To his critics, all will seem like madness – but there is method behind it. Whichever way you look at it, the surest way of tackling poverty is through education, work and love. And as someone once said, the greatest of these is love.