Blaming our ills on tiny number of single mums is shameful

Implication of Centre for Social Justice report is that a handful of single mothers are somehow at fault for all crime and deprivation, writes Tony Dyer

According to reports today, a study to be released by the Centre for Social Justice has found “67% of households in Lawrence Hill ward are run by a single parent”. Ashley ward meanwhile is an area “where 63% of households are single parent”, and just to make sure we understand the implications, it adds that the report warns that “father absence is linked to higher rates of teenage crime, pregnancy and disadvantage”.

These areas are, supposedly, “men deserts” – with more than 10,000 families without a father, street after street in places like St Paul’s, St Agnes, Stapleton Road and Easton Road.

The implication is clear – vast areas of Lawrence Hill and Ashley are almost entirely inhabited by single mum families, probably the cause of crime, almost certainly surviving off the state, and using pregnancy as way of getting ever more benefits at the expense of the hardworking taxpayer. These families are also almost certainly a major cause of the deprivation affecting both wards.

All of this because of the lack of a role model that only a man can provide. If you are one of those who believe all you hear about single mums on benefits unable to control their “feral” children then this might be worrying indeed.

Except that the claims are completely and utterly false.

The actual proportion of Lawrence Hill households that are lone parent families is about 17% of households. In Ashley it’s about 13%. When you only include single mothers with dependent children, who are the focus of the report, the percentages are 12% and 9% respectively.

The 67% and 63% figures are taken from the press release put out by the Centre for Social Justice to generate publicity for the launch of the report on Thursday.

However the release clearly states that rather than entire wards, the “report features ‘league tables’ for “Lower Layer Super Output Areas [LLSOA] which have an average population of 1,614”.

Thus the figure for Ashley is based on the St Paul’s – City Road LLSOA which accounts for just 537 households out of the 7152 households across Ashley, whilst the Lawrence Hill figures are for the Old Market and Temple Meads LLSOA which is just 713 households out of 8516.

Even this isn’t the full story because only 15% of the St Paul’s City Road households are headed by a lone parent, and only 6% of Old Market and Temple Meads households. The Old Market figure in particular is well below the average for Bristol and for England as a whole.

To get the figures of 63% and 67% reported you have to drill down to only those households with children, and eliminate all other households. In short you have to ignore up to 90% of households.

In St Paul’s City Road that leaves you with just 123 households, of which 77 are headed by lone parents and this is where the 63% figure comes from.

But even this figure is inaccurate, as almost 20% of the single parents struggling to bring up their families in this neighbourhood are, in fact, men.

The Centre for Social Justice is only concerned about the lack of male role models, not the lack of female role models.

Meanwhile, in Old Market and Temple Meads, of the 54 households (out of 713) that have dependent children, 36 are headed by lone parents (thus the 67% claim).  Of these 36 families, a grand total of 31 are headed by a single mum.

In short, 95% of households in the Old Market and Temple Meads area are NOT headed by single mothers.

Yet the implication is that these 31 single mothers are somehow at fault for its crime and deprivation levels, despite the fact that more than half of those women not only work hard to bring up a family but also go out and work, most of them in full-time jobs.

Blaming the ills of deprived neighbourhoods on a tiny number of single mums trying to bring their kids up as best they can – all the while bearing the brunt of benefit cuts implemented by the same Iain Duncan-Smith who set up the Centre for Social Justice – is nothing short of shameful.

These single mums, often bringing up a family AND holding down a job, ARE role models. They deserve our support, not our condemnation.

19 Responses to Blaming our ills on tiny number of single mums is shameful
  1. Paul Wilkes
    June 13, 2013 | 4:28 pm

    Guardian have weighed in now – with a link back to here!

    "In fact, some have already claimed that these statistics are inflated. Bristol247 took a number from the press release – 67% of families in Lawrence Hill were headed by single-parents – and found that if you included all households in the area, that proportion dropped to just 12%"

  2. Tony Dyer
    June 13, 2013 | 12:38 pm

    From Full Fact, the independent fact-checking organisation;

    "the CSJ has promoted its "major new report", it hasn't yet published it. But it's not enough to leave a trail of crumbs that leads nowhere"

    "Showing your evidence should be a condition of joining the debate. Not only is the CSJ willing to make these claims without the information to back them up, but the BBC waved them onto the airwaves with a Newsnight fanfare on Monday night. Still the public knows no more than it did on Sunday."

    "Any debate on family breakdown needs to be an informed one, and neither the CSJ nor the BBC has enabled that this week"

    • Matt
      June 13, 2013 | 1:15 pm

      Totally agree Tony, why the report was pre- press released in the way it has been is baffling. And how the BBC decided to major on it on Monday night before the report is even out is beyond me.

      • Tony Dyer
        June 13, 2013 | 1:43 pm

        They've published it now.

        A quick glance through appears to show some very iffy calculations on costs – i.e including some costs likely to apply even if two-parent household.

        Also recognition that only 17% to 30% of children in lone parent households never see their other parent – which tends to completely undercut the entire "67% never see their father" argument.

        Anyway, will read properly now it has finally been published.

  3. Matt
    June 13, 2013 | 11:33 am

    Arry, I think you should re-read what I actually said. I haven't invented anything, I made two points: firstly, that the CSJ press release figures relate to households that contain dependent children which is the correct denominator if the question is the relative proportions of families with one parent versus families with two parents. Secondly, that I thought Tony had drawn implications from the report that were not actually there and that there was a danger that the valid arguments that he makes are undermined somewhat because they are in response to something that wasn't actually said – suggests that it is sounding off at CSJ per say rather than engaging with the actual point of the report which is family breakdown and the negative consequences.

    From what I can see, the CSJ press release does not contain "lies" but it does use some very local area statistics irresponsibly – which undermines their position and distracts from the valid point that they make: that lots of children are growing up in households without one of their parents and that this is an issue for individuals, society and the economy.

    And for information, I do not, have not ever and would not work for any "think tank" whether on the right or the left (or centre!) – I am interested in correct use of statistics and academic evidence and, with Tony and I'm sure yourself, decry the twisting of small sample statistics for political capital.

  4. Arry
    June 13, 2013 | 8:42 am


    You are being far too fair to Matt

    Fake think tanks such as these are flooding the media with reports based on false statistics tied with right wing political ideology, all seeking transfer of money from the port to the rich.

    You expose the lies in this report and Matt completely fails to deal with that, instead inventing some factual problem with your piece.

    Either Matt works for one of these fake think tanks or he should do.

  5. Unchristian Guy
    June 12, 2013 | 5:07 pm

    Looks like the New Statesman is waking up to the CSJ's misuse of statistics;

    This is from Declan Gaffney ‏@djmgaffneyw4

    From yesterday excellent rebuttal of @csjthinktank claims re: Bristol… … … My take today… …

  6. Matt
    June 12, 2013 | 11:28 am

    Think you're being very harsh on CSJ. "To get the figures of 63% and 67% reported you have to drill down to only those households with children, and eliminate all other households." – doesn't it make sense if you are talking about relative proportions of households with two parents versus one parent to exclude households with no children?!
    The press release gives out numbers that anyone can look at and raise issue with, that's fine but I don't read anywhere in the press release that implies anything like "vast areas of Lawrence Hill and Ashley are almost entirely inhabited by single mum families, probably the cause of crime, almost certainly surviving off the state, and using pregnancy as way of getting ever more benefits at the expense of the hardworking taxpayer. These families are also almost certainly a major cause of the deprivation affecting both wards."
    You've read that interpretation into it, no-one else. Whether the numbers are right or wrong, putting paragraphs like that undermines your position as it suggests a lack of objectivity on your part.

    • harry
      June 12, 2013 | 2:00 pm

      Oh the irony. Acussing those on this site of lack of objectivity, but defending the CSJ.

    • Tony Dyer
      June 12, 2013 | 2:43 pm

      The CSJ referred to certain neighbourhoods as "man deserts". That implies large areas of a neighbourhood without an adult male presence.

      The reality is that in the Lawrence Hill neighbourhood concerned only 5% of households were a lone mother parent with children. Rather than "man deserts", we have a small number of "female oases".

      The CSJ ignore that most lone mother households have regular contact with male role models – though continued contact with the father (70% of children), a grandfather or uncles, elder siblings, or even neighbours as well as those involved in the community (youth club leaders, sports club leaders, etc).

      The use of the phrase "man deserts" does not indicate an interest in debating the relative merits of households with two parents versus one parent, rather it indicates a wish to make the debate about gender.

      The methodology CSJ have used is flawed and undermines the real debate; which is how best to support families of all types.

      That includes lone mother families who need real support rather than essentially being told that all they really need is a man about the house.

      • Matt
        June 12, 2013 | 3:37 pm

        Tony, I totally agree that all families need support – and single parent families (whether headed by dads or mums) especially. It is an incredibly difficult job to bring up children and work at the same time and the government should be supporting single parent families in all neighbourhoods. I was just trying to say that I don't think the purpose of the press release is to demonise single-parents or Bristol neighbourhoods. Rather it is pointing out the problem of family breakdown that is harming our society – and proposing that the government try and do something to help families stay together rather than having to spend much more picking up the pieces later when families break up. I don't think anyone goes into a relationship intending to become a single parent – it is a really tough job and ideally parents of children would stay together to bring up that child and so if the government can do something to support that then that has to be a positive.

        I agree that the use of terms like "man deserts" isn't helpful as it distracts from the real issue which is about the negative consequences for individuals and society of family breakdown. I don't think that the CSJ are trying to make it about gender I think they are saying the issue is family breakdown.

        My issue is that I think the perfectly valid points you make in your blog are in danger of being undermined by being bound up with accusing the CSJ of things that they didn't say. I'd say the same if it was the IFS or Resolution Foundation who put out the figures, I'm not defending the CSJ in particular, just interested in the debate remaining based in evidence and not extrapolation of the a set of figures to implications that I don't think are there.

        • Tony Dyer
          June 12, 2013 | 5:00 pm


          I am afraid that we will have to agree to disagree here, although I do accept that your point of view is one honestly made.

          This is an opinion column in the final analysis and it is my strong opinion that the CSJ were fully aware of how they had packaged their information and how it was likely to be used by certain sections of the media.

          I am afraid that this is not the first time CSJ have gone for sensationalism and provocative language over well researched facts and reasoned debate.

          I too am keen that the debate is based in evidence especially as for me it is of a very personal nature and I hope that the CSJ start to produce evidence based policy ideas rather then continuing to create policy based evidence.

          • Matt
            June 12, 2013 | 5:34 pm

            Fair play Tony, as you say it is an opinion column after all. I agree that the CSJ sensationalise things (doing the Mail's job for them…) and certain sections of the media lap that up. Just felt that your response (while a perfectly valid argument) was to something that they didn't actually say (this time at least). Very much agree re requirement for evidence based policy not policy based evidence.

  7. Harry
    June 11, 2013 | 9:50 pm

    Great article again

    If only there was a law, sort of like libel law, but where ordinary people could use it and not just the likes of the super rich. If only the single parents of Lawrence Hill and Ashley could show that IDS and the CSJ had defamed them and lied. Instead, for the majority of the population, this false version of events is now the truth as most media will continue to perpetuate their lies.

  8. Harry Mac
    June 11, 2013 | 6:20 pm

    this blog is becoming indispensable. Another fine piece of proper journalism.

  9. Tony Dyer
    June 11, 2013 | 5:10 pm

    I suspect CSJ were hoping for a "tsunami" of good publicity prior to the launch of their report on Thursday and probably assumed that by the time others had access to the full report itself to critique it, the concept of "men deserts" would already have been established in the public consciousness.

    However, the claims made in the press release itself can already be shown to be false unless they are planning to claim a massive change in the in the makeup of households in the Old Market and Temple Meads, and St Paul's – City Road LLSOAs since the 2011 census.

    Unfortunately, I think that other media outlets have already given CSJ what they wanted.

  10. Felix
    June 11, 2013 | 4:47 pm

    Nice work Tony. I see on Twitter that the CSJ's Ben Walker is questoning your deconstruction of a report that hasn't yet been published. Mind you, that didn't stop them making bold claims on the basis of a press release alone. A stink of hypocrisy rises from the CSJ.

  11. bensansum
    June 11, 2013 | 3:54 pm

    Thanks Tony – instinctively thought this was another piece of dogmatic b*ll*x from the CSJ, but having some numbers to back it up is great.

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