Contented families make marvellous economics

in ‘White Papers’, Reports, Articles

There are no votes in prevention. Thus said a somewhat weary family campaigner in the House of Lords. That was three years ago. It may be changing. The case for change is dramatic. Contented families make for unbelievably good economics. The most obvious link is in educational attainment. In general, contented families provide the motivation and confidence for children to learn most at school. Better school and college results mean people with more skills. Today’s global economy has an enormous demand for these skills. The jobs are far higher paid: more taxes for the Treasury, more production in the UK, more economic output and a lower balance of payments deficit.

This is enough, of itself. But there is more to the case. As much as 75% of illness is emotionally and stress related. Contented families are healthier. Their average costs to the NHS are lower. We do not know by how much. We do need to find out.

Then look at the other side of the coin. The last estimate I saw stated that £5bn public expenditure was directly related to family breakdown for housing benefits and income support. With the emotional turmoil at home, children from broken homes are more likely to underperform at school, go into lower paid jobs or be unemployed. It can be worse – more likelihood of burglary, vandalism and drug abuse. The associated costs of the police, courts, social services, probation and insurance are considerable. Again, the precise costs have not been calculated.

Of course, these average calculations can hide part of the picture. Out of adversity can come great achievement. Stress at home can stimulate success elsewhere. My purpose is not to pillory people in very difficult circumstances working hard to make the best of them.

But the overall message counts. Happy families are tax positive. Unhappy families are tax negative. The state of the family is an economic issue. From the family nest flows so much.

As a society, we spend about 1/1000th on supporting families as we do on picking up the pieces from discontented families. Does this make sense? In the long run, if we put money into helping more families to succeed, public expenditure would drop. Other than through reducing unemployment, this will be the only way to make substantial inroads into the costs of social benefits.

So what can we do?

In my report, Relative Values, I list over 50 different ways parents and children learn now about improving their family lives -from advice in newspapers and from friends, from mutual support organisations like HomeStart and the National Childbirth trust, from soap operas and magazines, from relationship classes in schools and parenting programmes, and from Relate and other counselling agencies. Much of this has been in place for many years. It works. No doubt some of it could work better.

None of it is seen as the nanny state, telling us how to live our lives. Indeed, the better equipped each family is to run itself, the less it will need government. It is all about saying to people here is some experience and some knowledge which other people have found beneficial. Would you like to use it? Believe it or not, some people are even finding they enjoy this family learning. Here are two examples. A Relate in Schools short relationship education course in a Brighton classroom resulted in exam performance improving. Why? The teacher could see beyond the pupil into his family circumstances and understood him better. Their relationship improved. All the research shows that one of the biggest determinants of education performance is the relationship between the teacher and the taught. At the other end of the scale, a group of six girls in Nottinghamshire were in perpetual conflict and on the point of being excluded with all the negative effects that brings. After the same short relationship course, they became friends, started writing to each other and stayed in school with some better outcomes.

I have said before that the most difficult job Tony Blair has is not being Prime Minister but being a parent. For all of us, family life is complex. But we receive no training in how to run a relationship or be a parent. If we are lucky, we would have had good role models as parents, from whom we would have absorbed a great deal. Making it OK to ask for help is vital. Home satisfaction can go up as well as down. The key point is that each of us has it within our capacity to change things at home. But the social norms work against us finding out how. We meet Mr or Mrs Right, get married, have children and live happily ever after is the theory. The practice is invariably different.

Persuading people to act is a job for us all, and this includes government. The present government has made progress on the family front – particularly the SureStart programme of £450m to improve the learning prospects for some 0-3 year olds. Based on the US experience, £1 spent in these early years should save £7 during the adolescent years.

This is prevention on the scale we need. Gordon Brown has shown real support for some families here. We all wish him the best of luck with the potentially very fulfilling and sometimes difficult journey of marriage. Whilst there are promising signs – not least the coming personal, social and health education in schools and the establishment of the National Family and Parenting Institute – the reality for most families is that little has changed in terms of government action and support. It is a political minefield, of course, and parties have become very cautious for fear of backlashes of various kinds. But, my hope is that Mr Brown will now grasp the enormous economic potential of contented families. We would all be better off in so many ways.

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