Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Telegraph: benefits=divorce

A staggering piece of misinformation from the respected über-Tory daily.

Much has been written recently about the potential dearth of British newspapers and the urgent need to save them. But it's pieces like Alasdair Palmer's in today's Telegraph that make you wonder whether their demise would actually be a blessing.

If sexed-up dossiers were an Olympic sport, Palmer would be pleased to know that he'd give Alistair Campbell a run for his money.

Take a look at his article "The benefit that became an incentive to divorce". On the face of it, it's an attack on Labour's tax policies. The Working Families Tax Credit, Palmer writes, has "directly led to a 160 per cent increase in single mothers, with all the attendant social problems". Palmer adds that "the evidence on the effects of raising children within a single-parent family is now overwhelming and extremely depressing" and uses this angle to repeatedly criticise the notion of "state intervention".

But here's where things get muddled up. To substantiate his views, Palmer uses one piece of reference only: a re-hashed study first published two years ago by the University of Essex called "The Effects of In-Work Benefit Reform in Britain on Couples: Theory and Evidence".

Obviously though the Telegraph churnalist doesn't tell his readers that the study is from two years ago. That would look bad, wouldn't it? So he actually writes the word "now", describing the study as "a technical paper, with the usual quota of equations and graphs so beloved of economists", as if that was supposed to give it extra weight.

Yet, exactly like a WMD-related "sexed-up dossier" things don't quite add up. The Working Families Tax Credit was brought in in 1999 and reached its present form in 2003. According to the abstract accompanying the study mentioned by Palmer, "its main implications are tested using panel data from the British Household Panel Survey collected between 1991 and 2002", and the authors also state that their findings were "highly heterogeneous". But don't bother looking for that bit in Palmer's article cos you won't find it.

But let's suppose that someone managed somehow to churn out the fantastically exact figure of 160 per cent increase in single mothers under New Labour (though how you can exactly and "directly" determine the effect of tax credit on single motherhood is beyond me).
The findings would still be radically at odds with what the Office for National Statistics published in August 2008. According to the ONS, in 2007 England and Wales registered the lowest divorce rate in 26 years, 20 per cent lower than the 1993 peak under John Major.

The rise in children born out of wedlock is undisputed, except that, again, according to official ONS figures, households headed by a lone parent began to increase in the 1970s and continued to do so under all governments, whether Labour, New Labour, Tory or UltraTory.
In 1971 the UK had 570,000 one parent families. By 1986 it was one in seven families and it kept growing throughout the Thatcher years, reaching one in five by 1991 and then 26 per cent by 2000.

By the way, note also Palmer's logical somersault between divorce and single mothers. The University of Essex study isn't at all about divorce, but the Telegraph's headline is written so that the word 'benefit' is seen next to 'divorce' and then 'Labour'. How does it work, anyway? Have they found lots of women who routinely come home and say "I'm sorry, hubbie, but you're dumped. Couldn't help myself, that Working Tax Credit was just so big"?

So let's be grateful for lower newspaper circulation. If and when the daily printed press eventually snuffs it, shoddy propaganda like Palmer's won't be missed.


socialist sam said...

Thanks for unearthing this. The thing is, it makes you wonder how many articles and references we read without having the time or the resources to check whether they add up.
Tories always accuse lefties of taking the mickey out of right-wing tabloids and of ignoring the apparently 'serious' Telegraph.

Anonymous said...

I can't find a copy of the paper "the effect of..." anywhere. It doesn't seem to be listed in the Journal of Economics; the only reference I have found is by an academic which relates to The Economic Journal. Can you tell us where we could find a copy of this paper?

claude said...

there's a link in the article that takes you there.

Helen Highwater said...

But benefits are evil, Claude! Don't you realise we should bring back the workhouse? That would get rid of hoodies and single mothers and knife crime in one go! Oakum picking is good for the soul!

Argh... I hate the Torygraph. My stupid family read it and I have to sit there listening to them regurgitating all this made up nonsense, and I say, "Would you like to go back to how it was? When children ran about barefooted in the streets? Or when unmarried mothers were permanently cast out of society as 'fallen women'?" Well, if it meant they had lower taxes, they'd consider it, I suppose.