It’s official: single parents are scroungers, and their time has come. Don’t listen to me, listen to the DWP, which plans to start compelling single parents (by which they mean, in 9 out of 10 cases, single mothers) back to work by the time their children are one year old. Our favourite DWP spokesmonkey declared before the Welfare Reform Bill’s first reading that ‘when the national effort is about a global downturn, we cannot afford to waste taxpayers' money on those who play the system’, repeating the patchwork fantasy that ‘work is the best way out of poverty’. Ahem. Not where I live, it’s not.
A report published only this week by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation attests to the spectacular hypocrisy of New Labour’s plan to ‘make work pay’ for the poorest and neediest whilst failing to take a stand over tax fraud committed by the super-rich. However much Purnell may claim that this is all for their own good, however much he may spit out the mantra that‘work is the best way out of poverty’ for single mothers and their families, he is belied by the fact that that the majority of children in poverty have at least one parent who works.
So there it is, in shiny think-tank black and white: without a decent living wage system, getting single mothers back into paid work will not increase quality of life for the poorest families, nor will it do anything for the nation’s children other than ensuring that they receive less primary care. Even those mothers who are lucky enough to find work - in a downturn where women are being made redundant at twice the rate of men - may find, like the distressed young woman who I met at Saturday’s Gender, Race and Class conference, that the only work available to them does not even cover the cost of childcare.
Let’s make one thing spectacularly, sparklingly clear: being the primary carer of a small child is work – hard work, unending work, work that can last an entire lifetime, work that defines the term ‘labour of love’. It’s work whether a man or a woman does it, although it continues to fall into the historic category of work that women contribute to the economy for free, ‘women’s work’, work undeserving of pay or professional respect. The fact that childcare isn’t recognised as work doesn’t make it any less valid as labour. But, not content with giving single parents with no other means of support a minimum of basic care rather than a liveable salary, the Welfare Reform Bill seeks to force single parents into extra, paid work, work that will not even raise their standard of living above the poverty threshold. That’s extra, paid work that isn’t actually available at the moment, in case you’d forgotten.
This system has already been tested out in the United States. ‘Workfare’ was implemented across the pond in the boomtimes – and even in conditions of high employment, as speakers at Saturday’s conference confirmed, it has contributed to a staggering increase in child poverty and in general poverty, creating what history will doubtless term the new American underclass. But that won’t stop wee Jimmy from trying to shoehorn a similar scheme into policy over here, not even when – as reported on this blog last week – many of the friends he was planning to give Workfare contracts to are already muttering their dissent.
There are, in fact, plenty of jobs available in the UK right now– it’s just that a great deal of them don’t earn any money, for no reason other than the fact that they never have before. The wisdom that we’ve all received is that if a job isn’t paid it must not contribute to the economy – but hold on a second. Since when did the raising of children not contribute to the economy? In Capital, Marx himself comments on the attitude of capitalism to the unpaid work of sustainance and reproduction done mostly by women:
‘The maintenance and reproduction of the working class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and propagation. All the capitalist cares for is to reduce the labourer’s individual consumption as far as possible to what is necessary.’
A hundred and fifty years after those words were written, the British government is setting out to reduce the individual consumption of domestic labourers to almost nothing, by withdrawing automatic benefits entitlement after their children are one year old. Domestic labour, since it does not turn over an immediately bankable profit, and since it is done overwhelmingly by mothers, is not considered real work – domestic labourers must therefore take on a second job to support themselves. If they refuse to do so for any reason, they are ‘playing the system’ and must be punished.
This state affairs was commonplace two hundred years ago, when single, unsupported mothers also faced destitution if they did not or could not take on extra work. The difference now is the level of public hatred reserved for single mothers on benefits. Stories of young mothers 'playing the system' in order to be housed in mysteriously palatial council accommodation have been stock red-top fodder for years, but the bile directed at single parents who receive state support has never been more vocal than it is now - just look at the hatred directed at Karen Matthews, not for the real crime of false imprisonment, but for the social transgression of daring to live in poverty as a single mother with no paid employment. This manufactured public hatred directly serves the interest of a capitalist society predicated on women's unpaid work, and yes, these are socialist knickers I have on today, what of it?
The domestic labourers (and I shall personally stamp on the shrivelled gonads of the next person who even whispers the hateful word 'housewife', which Greer rightly equates with the term ‘yard-nigger’) who will be affected by this new law, of course, will only be the poorest. Women who do not work outside the home, but who do not need government support because they are independently rich or because they have a partner who works, are not considered to be ‘playing the system’, not by the DWP and certainly not by the Evening Standard group– even though the only difference between these women and single mothers on benefits is the good fortune to be born with money or to marry it. If the world were a late-night tube carriage, the social hypocrisy of the British state would be fumblingly revealing itself in the corner.
In this hyper-capitalist world, power and respect are afforded to those who earn wages – are distributed, in fact, in the form of wages. By paying a decent, liveable salary to those women and men who have primary responsibility for a child – a wage which they can spend on maintaining themselves out of paid work, or on decent childcare whilst they perform alternative work - we might well fix not only the nation’s soaring unemployment crisis, but go some way towards erasing the breathtaking poverty and hypocrisy of our socially bankrupt self-organisation. Hey, I’m 22, so I’m bloody well allowed to dream about social justice in vivid technicolour. But if the idea of radical reform sticks in your throat, there are other solutions. As columnist Deborah Orr noted in The Independent today:
The Rowntree Foundation does not make radical demands in its report…although it does warn that in the long-term only improved job quality and sustainability will solve the problem. It merely suggests that a larger sum than the Government has already ear-marked must be made available if the catastrophe of yet another generation born and raised in poverty is to be avoided. That sum is £4.2bn a year in benefits and tax credits above its present plans, and is needless to say a fraction of the money that has been spent so far on bailing out the banks.
Call me Captain State The Obvious, but we live in a society which prioritises the interests of the rich over the general good of the labouring classes, a system which, not incidentally, relies on the unpaid labour of women to sustain itself. Because we’ve grown up with it, it seems normal, even justified – and for this reason, a government which feels justified in requiring single parents to work twice as hard as anybody else merely to qualify for the minimum level of benefits merits only sustained criticism rather than rioting in the streets - although watch this space for news on that front. To get you started, Gingerbread, the lone parents' forum, have organised an online write-to-your-MP skiffle, and you don't even need to be a member of the SWP to join. Because, fundamentally, this isn't just about socialism. It isn't even about feminism. It's about human decency, and it's about justice.