In March 2021, a new report by the UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities made waves in UK media because it dismissed “racism” as a catch-all explanation for social disadvantage. According to the report, “[t]he evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.” The report also claims to be the “first government-commissioned study on race that seriously engages with the family.”
One particularly striking example of this engagement cited in the report comes from new data on lone parenthood from the UK Office for National Statistics. As the report states, “Lone parent families have become more common since the 1970s, a result of an increase in divorces as well as an increase in never married lone mothers.” Among ethnic groups, the range of lone parenthood rates is huge. Least stable are Black Caribbean families, where 63% of children live in lone-parent households compared to just 6% among Indian families who are the most stable. By way of comparison, the proportion for the UK as a whole is 22% (not 14.7% as claimed in the report).
Just as the report is careful not to dismiss the existence of racism, it is also careful to avoid passing judgment on lone parents. Nonetheless, the report identifies how lone-parent families typically face greater strain and need more support than two-parent families. “We reject both the stigmatization of single mothers and the turning of a blind eye to the impact of family breakdown on the life chances of children,” it states.
The authors quite rightly point out that we should not stigmatize lone parents. But nor should we turn a blind eye to the impact of family breakdown on the life chances of children. However, by failing to identify the drivers of family breakdown, the report does exactly that. Just two of its 24 recommendations (#7 and #19) mention “family.” None address factors that might improve stability and reduce family breakdown, such as marriage, commitment, or even relationship quality. Other than a nod to divorce, as well as the influence of male responsibility and the welfare state, there is little attempt to explain the striking variation between ethnic groups.
In an analysis of family breakdown among 9,000 families with 11-year-olds that I did with my colleague Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln, we found that ethnicity does indeed make a difference. All other factors being equal, black fathers are more likely to split from the mother and South Asian mothers are less likely to split from the father. Black mothers and South Asian fathers face no greater or lesser risk than their white counterparts.
However—and it is a big however—the influence of ethnicity is only a fraction as important as the mother’s age, education, or happiness and whether she is married or cohabiting when the child is born. In fact, being married rather than cohabiting is one of the most important factors in predicting whether couples stay together or split up. It’s more important than the mother’s education, but six times more important than mother’s ethnicity and 17 times more important than father’s ethnicity.
In another analysis we did of 14-year-olds in the next wave of the same survey, we found that ethnicity did not influence teenage boys mental health at all. But it did have a small but counterintuitive effect on girls. Black girls were slightly less likely to show high levels of mental health problems, whereas Pakistani or Bangladeshi girls were more likely to do so. This latter effect disappeared altogether once the parents’ income was taken into account. Once again, other factors played a far more important role than race. Family breakdown, being married when the child was born, and mother’s education were the most important factors predicting subsequent teenage mental health.
In the UK race and ethnic disparities report, the authors are absolutely right to point out that family breakdown has a much bigger effect on outcomes than race. But their recommendations fall far short without acknowledging how marriage—and the clarity of commitment that it represents—is the key buffer against family breakdown for any race/ethnicity.
Harry Benson is Research Director of the UK-based Marriage Foundation.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published by ConservativeHome.