Over the past three decades, there have been considerable changes to the family, in that it has become notably more diverse. Whereas the ‘Nuclear Family’, consisting of two adults and at least two children, was considered the norm before the 1970s, the term ‘family’ now extends “to cover any household, where any living situation and all transitional states are equally ‘families’, there is nothing to decline or dissolve, only movement between ever transmuting ‘family forms’. ” (P. Morgan, 1998).
The changes observed include patterns of later marriage and more divorce, increasing numbers of cohabiting couples, and a rise in the average age for having children1. Associated partly with divorce is the increase in lone, or single, parents. This diversification of family ‘forms’ can be linked to the changing role of both women and men in today’s society. Women are becoming more and more economically independent and active in the labour market, while the traditional ‘male breadwinner’ role of men is slowly disappearing. As K. Kiernan points out in ‘The Fragmenting Family: does it matter?
‘, women’s desire to pursue a career is one of the main factors contributing to the delay of marriage and parenthood. The increase in divorce can be attributed to legal changes associated to it, such as the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, implemented in 1971, as this kind of amendment makes it easier for couples to divorce, and it becomes less stigmatized within society. 2 In this essay, we will first discuss the reasons for which the family changes mentioned above have become a concern for social policy, focussing on the increase in lone-parent families.
Having done so, we will examine the question of whether or not these issues should be of concern to social policy, and briefly introduce some of the measures that have been taken in trying to solve these problems. We will finally come to a conclusion on the question, drawing on the main points of the essay. In the UK, divorce has been rapidly increasing since the 1970s. This has become an issue of concern to a number of politicians, who consider that marriage and the traditional nuclear family play important roles in society and in the socialization of children.
3 Cohabitation has become a concern for the same reasons, as this often implies a delay, or even an alternative, to marriage. With regards to the increasing age of first time mothers, the concern is that the UK will experience a rapidly ageing population, with a higher proportion of dependent population. An ageing population means that more social care and finance is needed for the benefit of the elderly. 4 The more and more prominent single parent family is somewhat more complex than the previously mentioned changes, especially when considering the concern and problems that it entails.
Firstly, as Jonathan Bradshaw clearly states in The Student’s Companion to Social Policy, chapter IV. 5, there are differences between lone-parent families, they should not be classed as one group in society. The least frequent type of single parent family is that headed by the father of the child (less than 10 per cent). Amongst the ones headed by women, there are the families in which the mother is alone due to divorce, separation or death, which is the largest group. Following this is the group in which the mother had never been married. This group is growing the most rapidly.
It also has differences within it, however: women who had been cohabiting but are now alone, and those who had always lived alone, without the father. 5 There are several problems that arise from single parent families, and which have become a concern to social policy. Economically, single parent families today tend to be very dependent on benefits from the state. 6 This is because single parents have the responsibility for bringing up their children, so most often cannot work. Because they do not work, they are unable to afford any ‘outside’ support.
Statistics show that “just over half of lone parent families are dependent on Income Support and over 80 per cent are supported by Income Support, Housing Benefit or Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC)”. 7 Additionally, the increase in single parent families means that there is a bigger demand for housing, as Bradshaw states: “it has been estimated that an extra 800,000 dwellings are needed at any one time as a result of lone parenthood”. Moreover, the housing supplied is usually of poorer quality than that owned by cohabiting or married couples, meaning that becoming a lone-parent involves a social degeneration for the parent and child.
It has also been shown that poverty is predominant amongst lone parent families, being a consequence of the dependency on benefits and their difficulty to combine employment and childcare. 8 A final area of concern associated with lone parent families is that of the children involved. There has been much investigation on this subject, in which the researchers are trying to determine whether or not being brought up in a lone parent family is damaging for children.