Women on the verge of breakdown

The poorest mothers in Britain are right to feel that they have been betrayed
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The Independent Culture
HOW DID you celebrate Mother's Day? Bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates were winging their way across the country yesterday, a Grosvenor Street beauty salon was offering a rose facial and hair treatment at the knock-down mothers' day price of pounds 59, and the Body Shop had a truly heartwarming advertisement for the perfect "gift of fragrance" featuring a bruiser of a man and a cute grandmotherly figure.

That's all nice and fine: we love our mothers, don't we, so why not show it with a little flurry of tasteful consumerism? Even the Government was basking in a warm glow after generously handing out a pounds 3 rise in child benefit, so that mothers all over Britain could feel not just loved but supported. "This is a budget for women," Gordon Brown said last week.

So why are some mothers so angry? One dogged band of women weren't basking in that glow, but organising a "Celebration and Protest for Mothers" at the Crossroads Women's Centre in north London, where hard-done-by mothers from Sara Keays to the mother of a victim of the Hillsborough disaster could get together to voice their grievances. It was a million miles from hand-tied bouquets of roses and fragrance. "This protest is a response to the way the Government attacks mothers," said Kim Sparrow, a single mother who spoke at the event. "They believe that children's lives mean nothing, that the work we do is worthless."

And frankly, she has a point. For some reason, Gordon Brown's statement that this is a budget for women got through on the nod, even from left- wing commentators. Yes, many women will benefit from his reforms, especially from the pounds 3 rise in child benefit, and the children's tax credit, which could leave parents in low-paid work as much as pounds 25 a week better off. But the very poorest parents are not in work, they are living on benefit, and so the tax credit will mean nothing to them.

Although they will get that increase in child benefit, it will make only the most marginal difference to their incomes, which have been dropping in real terms for the last 15 years. What's more, for lone parents - 70 per cent of whom don't work - the increase in child benefit won't even cover what they lost in April with the scrapping of the lone parent allowance. The poorest mothers in Britain are right to feel that they have been betrayed.

Talking to Kim Sparrow, I felt dizzy. I was looking into a real abyss between what parents want for their children and the day-to-day reality of many mothers' lives. Kim and her daughter live on pounds 82 a week. "I always worry about her food," she said to me. "If you live on benefit, your child eats the cheapest food, the food that's full of pesticides and preservatives, the stuff that other mothers won't touch. You know what's best for your child, but you just can't buy that, the fresh fruit, the vegetables."

While London booms again, Kim's world stays small. "We never go out," she says. At just five years old, Kim's daughter already knows not to ask her for anything more. Far from the brattish consumerism of a middle- class five year old, she has learnt another way of life. "She knows not to ask. She sees her friends have stuff we don't have, but she's very good. She can sense the stress I'm under, somehow."

But why should Gordon Brown care about Kim Sparrow? He doesn't want to raise the living standards of people on benefit, because he wants to push them into work. That's fine for people with no dependents. But why should women who take menial paid work be supported, while women who do the hard, round-the-clock work of looking after their own children get forced deeper and deeper into poverty? "This government doesn't see that looking after children is work," says Kim.

And even working mothers haven't found any joy in this budget, if they are at the very lowest level of earnings. Elizabeth, another woman who spoke at the Crossroads Centre on Sunday, is a refugee who works part- time for pounds 85 a week. She doesn't want to work longer hours, because her youngest child is just one year old and she wants to spend some time with her. But with such low wages, she doesn't pay tax, so all the tax credits in the world won't affect her.

These aren't the problems of a tiny minority of women. A staggering 4 million children are growing up in households whose income is less than half the national average - that's one in three of all children in Britain. Gordon Brown is making a spurious distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, in which the work that mothers do is judged undeserving. "I feel furious, just furious with this government," said Kim Sparrow, and you can see why.