Why they won’t leave lone parents alone

Plans to get more single mums off benefits are less about saving money and more about saving children from the 'wrong' kind of parental love.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

The UK government has announced plans to reform the welfare payments system. Apparently, prime minister Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown will unveil a plan to privatise the welfare-to-work programme, wherein private employment companies will be offered bounties if they can prevent claimants from signing on for at least three years (1). The government is particularly targeting lone parents with children over the age of 12. Before these latest proposals, single parents had the choice of staying at home with the help of single-parent benefits until their children turned 16. Now if they don’t find some kind of employment within a specified period of time after their child turns 12, they face having their benefits cut.

Considering that the government claims to be committed to tackling child poverty and ‘social exclusion’, one might ask how these new punitive measures could help to alleviate deprivation. And at a time when the UK economy is comparatively strong, it’s hard to believe that the public purse can’t be stretched to child support for lone parents. It seems there is far more going on in this latest debate about lone parents and benefits than market-driven bean-counting.

The government can hardly claim that there is an ‘epidemic’ of single mothers claiming ‘generous’ welfare benefits, as the Conservative Party routinely did in the Eighties and Nineties. Nearly three-quarters of lone parents with older children already choose to work anyway. The remaining 30 per cent say they stay at home in order to look after children who are disabled or who have specific needs (2). Leaving all that aside, surely lone parents should have the choice as to whether they stay at home and raise their kids or go out to work?

The government makes great play of letting us have ‘informed choices’ over ‘healthy lifestyles’, but when it comes to enabling parents to make substantial choices over child-rearing the government’s restricting impulses always win through. It’s bad enough that in the twenty-first century, there aren’t enough free crèche facilities available to enable parents to take more control of their daily lives. It’s even worse that Blair and Brown are proposing to cut back on the miniscule welfare assistance that does exist for lone parents.

On one level, the government’s proposal looks like one of those ill-informed, poorly outlined ideas that grabs the headlines before fizzling out into a great big empty nothing. When the government’s own Equality Review concludes that working mothers are still more likely to face discrimination in employment than anyone else, it takes some brass neck to then turn around and insist that, hey, single mothers must either find work or lose benefits. It’s even more peculiar when you consider that, for years now, an army of so-called child-rearing experts has been promoting hands-on, stay-at-home parenting as the best antidote to children suffering from low self-esteem or turning into delinquents.

Indeed, given that ‘absent’ (and therefore ‘bad’) parenting dominates so much discussion on potential problem families, you might think the government would prefer to encourage more single mothers to stay at home rather than to neglect their ‘responsibilities’ to the ‘wider community’. However, the government would only do that if it really thought parents could be trusted to get on with the job of child-rearing – and it seems that one of the motivating forces behind the new proposals to restrict single-parent benefits is precisely governmental distrust of parents in general.

Perhaps Blair and Brown’s decision to encourage single parents to leave the home and find work is driven by the kind of hostility to working-class parents that is widespread in political and cultural life today. In the same week the government announces a £2million package to tackle domestic violence, and when it regularly bankrolls other family intervention schemes, it seems clear that saving a few million on welfare payments isn’t its overriding concern on the single-parent issue.

Rather, this can be seen as an attempt to weaken the bond between stay-at-home lone parents and their children. So maybe targeting those single parents with secondary school-age children is not so random after all: Blair is more or less indicating that secondary schools, rather than families, should be the prime institution to socialise (and finger-print and monitor) children. That is one reason why a whole raft of initiatives, such as breakfast and homework clubs, as well as Saturday revision classes, have been introduced recently – and often with no expense spared.

From this perspective, the logical outcome of forcing single mothers into work would be to bring their children closer to the school and its associated professionals. If mothers have to take up low-paid shift-work, for instance, it naturally means their children will be more likely to attend after-school activity classes. If working single parents don’t have time to make breakfast for their kids, they would go to the school’s breakfast clubs instead. For Blair and child welfare professionals, this outcome is always preferable, as it means children can be spoonfed healthy options – both literally, in terms of food, and morally in the sense of instilling children with the right values and outlook.

Indeed, last week’s witch hunt of a mother with an overweight child shows what social services think about families. It now seems that parental love and care is no longer viewed as a positive aid to a child’s development, but as a bad carb- and sugar-heavy influence on a child’s diet and wellbeing. The affectionate ritual of parents who stay at home is to serve up sugary-tea and chocolate biscuits when their children return home from school – and for children, this is both a sensual treat and also a release from the formal world of schooling. Yet recent government initiatives seem designed to restrict and shrink this informal space between parents and children.

The government’s main problem with stay-at-home single parents is less that these individuals are failing to play a role in wider society, and more that they seem to fall outside any mechanisms of regulation and sanction. In the public sector in particular, and increasingly in the private sector, too, there is now a plethora of diversity training days and enrichment activities for employees to get involved in. One of the college’s I teach at drums up any excuse to drag you in for a ‘meeting’ or for training activity during the holidays. In today’s climate, perhaps the authorities’ concern with unemployment is not so much that it gives rise to non-productive activity as that it encourages non-regulative activity.

It strikes me that the latest assault on single mothers isn’t really about protecting the public purse from ‘scroungers’. It is more about protecting children from the alleged harm caused by parental love, especially that dished out by untrained, unregulated parents.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

(1) Observer, 4 March 2007

(2) Observer, 4 March 2007

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Topics Politics

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