April 10th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Economic underclass behind marriage and fertility decline

EDITORIAL: Uncommunicative patients - a call on our compassion

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Latham Iraq gaffe signals the honeymoon is over

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The next Four Corners? / Granada

SOCIETY: Who benefits from drugs?

AGRICULTURE: Farmers rallying to fight for industries

ECONOMY: Australia's foreign debt set to grow

The Passion (letter)

Sugar prices (letter)

Tobacco and pharmaceuticals (letter)

Ageing population (letter)

ETHICS: The ethical responsibility of a Christian politician

ECONOMY: US-Australia Free trade agreement and the national interest

TAIWAN ELECTION: Saved by commonsense

PAKISTAN: Inside Pakistan's nuclear weapons program

HONG KONG: Poll battle looms over democratic reforms

BOOKS: Benign or Imperial? Reflections on American Hegemony, by Owen Harries

FILM REVIEW: The Last Samurai

Books promotion page

Economic underclass behind marriage and fertility decline

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, April 10, 2004
Despite the apparent prosperity of the 1990s, a growing underclass of single low income males (SLIMS), not in full-time work and lacking the economic resources to hold a family together, is the major reason for the decline in the marriage and fertility rate since the mid-1980s.

This is the key finding of a major study, Men and Women Apart: The Decline of Partnering in Australia, commissioned by the Australian Family Association (AFA). The study, was done by Dr Bob Birrell, Virginia Rapson, and Clare Hourigan from the Centre for Population and Urban Research, at Monash University. It compared data from the 1988, 1996 and 2001 censuses.


Launching the study at the Thomas More Centre in Melbourne, AFA National President, David Perrin, said "The Australian Family Association believes that the report on the decline of partnering in Australia exposes the plight of young men in their family formation years being unable to marry and form families.

"The single low-income males (SLIMS) need positive assistance with permanent jobs, new skills and more income to take up their willingness to commit to marriage and families."

Dr Birrell said at the launch that programs like Sex in the City had created the view in popular culture that it was the expansion of an educated class of wealthy, sexually free men and women, whose commitment was to lifestyles rather than to family and children, that was the primary cause of the decline in marriage and family.

On the contrary, Dr Birrell said, the report showed that the marriage rate for tertiary educated women had stabilised and that their divorce rate had declined slightly.

The report showed that in 1986 most women were partnered by their late twenties. By 2001 only a bare majority, 53%, were partnered.

In 1986, 71% of men had partnered by their early thirties, but by 2001 this had shrunk to 59%.

After the economic boom of the 1990s and 20 years of "free market", economic rationalist, structural economic change - deregulation of financial markets, cutting tariffs, labor market deregulation, privatisation, deregulation of agriculture, etc. - there have been economic winners and losers.

The report showed that the structural economic changes have had social repercussions:

  • There is a growing underclass of men who are losing out in the job market. The losers are essentially defined as being not in full-time work, having no post-school education, and living on less than $31,200 p.a. (many on less than $15,600 p.a.). Lacking the financial resources and facing higher housing and child-rearing costs, they are also losing out in the marriage market. The critical condition for marriage is a full-time job.

  • Full-time work for men in their late 20s and early 30s fell sharply from 1986 to 1996. It then continued to fall at a slower rate between 1996 and 2001. By 2001, one-third of men aged 25-29 were not in full-time work and 28-29% of those in the 30-34 age groups were also not in full-time work.

  • More than half of all men in their late 20s and early 30s have no post-school qualifications.

  • As the summary table demonstrates below, the lower the income the lower the marriage and partnering rate and the higher the divorce and separation rate.

  • The marriage rate amongst these men is plummeting and the divorce rate is more than double that of men on higher incomes. If this trend continues into the future, the majority of such men could soon be unpartnered.

In contrast, for tertiary educated, higher income people:

  • Married men are increasingly from the ranks of the better off. Amongst the tertiary educated, there is a much higher marriage rate, and much lower divorce rates.

  • With higher incomes and job stability, people are more able to hold a family together. Higher qualified men have tended to have a higher marriage rate than other men. While this is not new, what is new is the growing marriage gap between high and low income men.

The revolution in marriage is affecting fertility:

  • Australia's fertility rate in 2001 was 1.73, down from 2.8 in the late '60s and well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman over a life time.

  • Married women without bachelor degrees are still the most fertile, having about 2.28 children per woman (35-39 years). The problem is that the marriage rate for this group has plummeted as the job situation for their potential partners has deteriorated. This is the primary cause of the decline in fertility since 1986.

  • For women with no post-school education, by the time they are in their mid-thirties, 32% are unpartnered, and 45% of these are lone parents, compared to just 10% of unpartnered degree qualified women who are lone parents.

  • Married women with tertiary degrees aged 35-39 years have a lower fertility rate of 1.94, but have a much higher marriage rate and lower divorce rate than women with no post-school qualifications.

  • Single women have a lower fertility rate than women who are married or de facto. Without these single mothers, the fertility rate would be even lower.

High cost of unemployment

Commenting on the report, AFA President David Perrin said, "Governments have not calculated the true cost of men not being in full-time work. The true cost is much more than their welfare. There is the added costs of welfare for the women they cannot afford to marry and the children these women are having alone. Then there is the cost of having these children at risk - social costs in education, drugs and crime.

"The solutions can only partly be found in more education and skills training.

"This is because over the decade of the '90s, 87% of all new jobs created paid less than $26,000 p.a. and nearly half paid less than $15,600 p.a., according to the Australian Centre for Industrial Research and Training. ABS figures show that at any one time, for any one job available, there are 7-10 people looking for work.

"Fundamentally, it calls for policies to boost infrastructure and growth industries, thus providing full-time work for those without post-school education.

"Also needed are tax, welfare and family payments geared to boost male incomes to put them in reach of marriage."

Men and Women Apart was critical of the "unwritten assumption" of governments "that families are insulated from what is going on in the wider economy."

The report cited the occasion of the visit to Australia of President George W. Bush, when Prime Minister John Howard told the Federal Parliament that the shared values of the two countries include:

"...the belief that the individual is more important than the state, that strong families are a nation's greatest asset, that competitive free enterprise is the ultimate foundation of national wealth, and that the worth of a person is determined by that person's character and hard work, not by their religion or race or colour or creed or social background."

The report said to the contrary, "The evidence assembled ... suggests that Australia's recent dynamic economic performance is not providing circumstances conducive to the flourishing of family life, at least for a growing minority of Australian men and women."

Men and Women Apart refutes another view put by the Australian Institute for Family Studies, that today's lower marriage rate simply reflects a return to a more "normal" pattern of partnering such as that evident in the early part of the twentieth century.

The report says that early last century men failed to marry "because, by 1911, Australia was still emerging from the devastating 1890s depression and the slow recovery in the 1900s ... (and) there were still about six per cent more males aged in their late twenties than there were females ...

"Yet, despite the enormous economic gains over the past century and the relative absence of social barriers to partnering (including those related to income levels and religious views), Australia has arrived at a situation similar to 1911 where, by the time men reach their early thirties, some 41 per cent are not partnered. Nor is there any longer a surplus of young adult men relative to women."

Dr Birrell also challenged the view that the underclass of low income men, the SLIMS, were roving bachelors enjoying the fruits of modern relationships.

He said: "Most unpartnered men in their thirties live in the distinctly less glamorous context of their original family (that is with their parents) or in group households. In the case of unpartnered men in their early thirties, almost a third of those with incomes of less than $31,200 live at home with parents."

Dr Birrell said that the census data showed a strong link firstly between a male having a full-time job and his ability to marry, and then between marriage and fertility. He said that by their late 30s, almost all married women, barring couples with fertility problems, had one or more children.

This linkage had not diminished over time, contradicting another popular view that there was a growing, significant number of dual-incomes-no-kids (DINKs) families causing the decline in fertility.

Dr Birrell said married women had the highest fertility rate, followed by those in de facto relationships, followed by single women. Hence the key to reversing Australia's declining fertility rate was to increase the marriage rate. A necessary step for this was getting men into full-time work.

The report also refuted another misconception, that single mothers were living well on welfare. The evidence showed that for women 30-34 years, 68% of single mothers are living on less than $26,000 p.a., while 70% of married women with children have family incomes of $41,600 or more.

  • Pat Byrne

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