The Daily Mail guide to poverty: it's my fault

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The Independent Online
THE Daily Mail discovered poverty this week, on a grim housing estate on the outskirts of Coventry. "Nobody who has visited the place could feel anything," its journalist Graham Turner wrote, "but a profound sense of pity." He described the lives of the young single mothers on the estate in some detail - the depression, the boredom, the constant demands of small children, the benefits trap that claws back their meagre earnings.

"It is an often grim environment," he observed, "a wasteland of litter, broken toys and rubbish bags." His article is, you might think, a searing indictment of the run-down public housing and inadequate state education, the absence of jobs and nursery places, which has been the lot of the more vulnerable members of our society since the Conservatives came to power in 1979.

Not so. Turner's article was prefaced by an introductory paragraph attacking "successive Conservative governments'' but not on any of the grounds mentioned above. Instead, it complained about "tax measures which penalise traditional families where the father works and the mother stays at home to raise the children". The Church has failed to give any kind of moral leadership while television has turned the expression "family values" into a term of abuse.

These are still standard ingredients of the fin-de-siecle phenomenon, the moral panic. But there's an interesting addition to the Mail's rogues' gallery: the women's movement. "Feminists say, forget the family," the paper thundered in big black type above Turner's article "Try repeating that on council estates where single mothers outnumber the men and where children often find a new 'daddy' in their mother's bed.''

Could you, as they say in the States, run that past me again? Over the years, like most feminists, I've grown used to accusations of man-hating, talking too loudly, protesting too much - and having too much hair for my political views.

But forcing young women into lives of deprivation, loneliness and despair? This is definitely a new one on me. Has the Daily Mail discovered some secret feminist text which advocates squalor as every woman's right? A new Virago publication entitled Breadline Nymphomaniacs: What Women Really Want in the 21st Century? I think not.

WE'RE to blame, apparently, because the only alternative to the traditional, two-parent family is single motherhood - all right for feminists, who have nannies, but a disaster for everyone else. "I never dreamt life would be like this," said Sharon, one of Turner's interviewees. "I used to dream of a career, getting married, a white wedding, rearing a family." This is not, it has to be said, a traditional feminist manifesto; white weddings do not feature largely in the classic texts.

Sharon's problems seem to have as much to do with the behaviour of men - she has five children by three different fathers, all absent - as too much reading of the Scum Manifesto. But the muddled thinking behind the Mail's analysis is cruelly revealed when Turner discusses how Sharon and her neighbours are funded - they're kept afloat, he says, by "taxes paid by traditional two-parent families".

I know the nuclear family has iconic status in the minds of Mail readers but it isn't solely responsible for funding government spending. Single men, single women, the divorced and separated, even feminists pay taxes. What Sharon needs to turn her into a taxpayer is a properly paid job and affordable childcare, the kind of things feminists have been advocating for ages, not a husband.

ALL THIS hand-wringing over single parents comes in a week when the Lord Chancellor proposed some not very radical changes to divorce law - chiefly that unhappy couples should have to wait a year before starting divorce proceedings. The reforms were attacked by Tory MPs who see them as making divorce easier, even though many couples will have to wait longer, and prompted articles like the Mail's "family in crisis" series.

Why, though, is divorce almost universally regarded as a bad thing? So much energy is expended on the question of how to keep marriages intact when it's obvious that the present ceremony requires people to make promises which some 40 per cent of them can't keep. Combined with the fact that almost a third of babies are now born outside wedlock, I should have thought the inescapable conclusion was that lifelong, state-sanctioned marriage no longer works - and that's far from being a bad thing.

Stripped of its romantic gloss, civil marriage began as a crude but effective means of regulating the transmission of property; the historian Lawrence Stone has described married women in 19th century Britain as "the nearest approximation in free society to a slave''. The struggle to rescue wives from their chattel status has been long and fiercely contested, with every reform (including the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870, 1874 and 1882) greeted as another blow to traditional values. It's hardly surprising that many feminists have concluded that the institution itself is at fault and want nothing more to do with it. But that's not the same as suggesting that all children should be brought up on decrepit housing estates by poverty-stricken single mothers.

ONE married couple who stayed together for 30 years was featured in the Daily Telegraph this week. Brian Stedman battered his wife Joan to death with a hammer in November last year, shortly after he lost his job and she began suffering the effects of the menopause. The Recorder of London, Sir Lawrence Verney, was sympathetic: "It is clear,'' he told Stedman, "that your wife had nagged incessantly and in very violent terms." Stedman, who denied murder but admitted manslaughter, was sentenced to three years in jail. Nobody mentioned divorce.