Widows are not a special case

STOP PITYING the widow. We have been feeling sorry for the defenceless, manless creature since the time of Christ, when she popped her mite in the collection box, and there's always been an assumption that she's poor. Forget the fact that we've all met merry ones and rich ones - the widow of common myth is a wretched figure, at a loss because of her loss.

Time has stood still for the women in weeds. While family life has undergone fundamental changes, the widow's standing has not. It's as if we still assume women are entirely dependent on men. Only women who have lost their husbands are eligible for support. Women who have lost partners are not, no matter how dependent they were on them; nor are men who have lost their breadwinning wives (or partners).

This is not just quaintly old-fashioned, it is daft and cruel. Kevin Willis is a victim of this unreconstructed piece of welfare. His wife, Marlene, was the family's breadwinner and Mr Willis had to stop work to look after their two school-age children when she became ill with the cancer that finally killed her. For him there was no pounds 1,000 - the lump sum payable to widows on bereavement - and no allowance, which, if he were a widow rather than a widower, would have come to pounds 85 a week for him and the children. And, because he has savings, he is expected to live on them, rather than receive income support.

Britain is virtually alone in Europe in not treating widows and widowers equally, and Mr Willis is taking his case to Europe, where he is mounting a legal challenge to the Government under the European Convention of Human Rights.

He and his fellow widowers are not the only people who should be aggrieved about widows' special treatment. Since they were introduced in 1948, widows' pensions have been surprisingly generous compared to other benefits. Current provision includes the pounds 1,000 lump sum and a widow's pension of pounds 64.70 a week, plus up to pounds 11.30 for each dependent child.

The widowed mother receives cash benefits that on average are three times as much as other women also struggling to raise children on their own. Divorced women continue to fare much worse than widowed women as they get older. The prevailing view of the welfare system today, just as much as in the days of the workhouse, is that there is a difference between the deserving and undeserving poor.

Earlier this year Tony Blair sacked Frank Field, the man originally asked to think the unthinkable on welfare. Now it's time for Alistair Darling, charged with welfare reform, to do the unthinkable. He has to go further than merely chopping benefits. He has to make the system fairer. One way to do this would be by paying widow's benefits to widowers with children. But that would be costly, and New Labour did not get where it is today by spending money on the needy.

A more realistic - indeed a juster - approach would be to scrap the existing system altogether. After all, should women today, with all the opportunities available to them, really get a payment from the state, regardless of income, just because they lose a partner? Benefits today have become so byzantine that a woman on a lower income would lose out because her widow's benefit would be deducted from her other means-tested benefits, while someone else on a higher income would not be penalised.

What Mr Darling needs to do is be brave, and haul the welfare state into the late 20th century. The key influences on women's incomes remain education, marriage and children (or the lack of them). But they have choices that their grandmothers and great-grandmothers didn't have. They have every right to secondary and tertiary education; they have choice over the size of their families, and they can work. Nobody forces them to give up work because they marry or have children.

The mothers who are raising their children in poverty today are those who have never married. Mr Darling needs to find a solution to that problem, and fast. A benefit that recognises the needs of child carers, regardless of status or gender, and doesn't keep parents in the welfare trap, is what is needed.

And while Mr Darling is going about his reforms, the rest of us should think again about the way we perceive widows. Instead of pitying them as victims who are incomplete without a man, we should recognise their emotional loss. But we need to stop treating them as if they lost their brain and their earning potential while they wept at the graveside. Like any woman (or man) who has undergone relationship breakdown, they have endured a terrible trauma. But they don't need an automatic handout, or to be patronised, or to be treated as a special case. The same treatment as others in their situation, mixed with plenty of compassion, is all that's required.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    BI Manager - £50,000

    £49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

    BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

    £48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

    VB.Net Developer

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

    SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game