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As we continue to blame single mothers for society's woes, it's no surprise their children are living in poverty

While single parenthood can be stigmatised, the true horror of deprivation can be downplayed. Victim-blaming policies allow responsibility to be shifted onto those who suffer most

Wednesday 21 February 2018 14:32 GMT
'We shouldn't underestimate the close association of prejudice with the preservation of privilege'
'We shouldn't underestimate the close association of prejudice with the preservation of privilege' (Getty)

Single-parent families are struggling. According to the charity Gingerbread, up to one in three children with a working single parent is living in poverty. This is not a surprise. We know that low pay, job insecurity and welfare cuts hit the vulnerable the hardest. We also know that single parents – especially single mothers – are go-to scapegoats whenever the going gets tough.

After all, so the narrative goes, single parenthood isn’t a normal way of raising children. It remains something in-between a mortal sin and an unfortunate accident. We can’t make it too comfortable, unless others might be wanting to have a go, and if that means some children suffer, well, that’s just all for the common good.

What is happening right now is a direct result of our current Government’s policies on welfare and employment. Bland statements about work being “the best route out of poverty”, which ignore both the value of unpaid work and the harm of zero-hours contracts and low-paid, inflexible roles, mask a drive to sever basic social ties.

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It’s immediate, but it’s also longstanding, rooted in age-old beliefs about class, work and gender. Children’s immediate welfare and their long-term futures are being sacrificed to right-wing ideologies regarding social superiority, the value of caring and the role of women.

A Government spokesperson claims to “recognise how challenging it can be for lone parents to juggle work and family life”. Fair enough, but this is not unlike someone who’s just punched you in the face recognising how challenging it can be for people with black eyes and broken noses. Support for single-parent families is couched as an act of benevolence, not the rectification of a basic injustice. There’s something especially chilling this piece of news being used as an opportunity to repeat meaningless, stigmatising lines about children “growing up in workless households”. Raising children is work; caring for the sick and the elderly is work; desperately scrabbling from one week to the next is work. That such work is unpaid is neither here nor there.

As long as single parenthood can be stigmatised, the true horror of deprivation can be downplayed. Victim-blaming policies – the removal of tax credits for third babies, the loss of free school meals for up to a million children, child benefit reforms which favour dual-earner families – allow responsibility to be shifted onto those who suffer most.

The response from self-styled moralists of the right will not be one of shame. To them, the solution lies the promotion of marriage – any marriage, regardless of what happens behind closed doors – and “helping people back to work” by withdrawing the safety nets needed when work either isn’t available or simply doesn’t pay. It’s not that they don’t see that parenting itself is a job which has social and economic value. It’s just they only see it when we’re dealing with stay-at-home mothers who are married to wealthy men (hence a struggling single mother is still supposed to take lessons in responsibility from the likes of “had six children, never changed a nappy” Jacob Rees-Mogg).

One of the cruellest aspects of Tory policy towards single-parent families – one which hasn’t changed for decades, showing quite clearly that the “nasty party” cap still fits – is the way in which the demonisation of a group relies entirely on the discrimination inflicted upon it. In an obscene reversal of cause and effect, Tory MPs such as Sir Edward Leigh boast of there being “an absolute wealth of evidence on the importance of marriage to the welfare of children”. Well, of course there is, if you – the policy-makers, the people who make decisions on workers’ rights, living wages, free childcare, discrimination law, tax credits – want it to be so. But let’s be clear which way round this works. The party of noble knights such as Sir Edward does not promote marriage to alleviate suffering; it enables suffering in order to promote its own patriarchal model of the nuclear family (and while we’re on that subject, let’s remind ourselves that there’s also “an absolute wealth of evidence” showing that the biggest threat to a woman’s safety comes from a live-in male partner).

As Gingerbread’s Rosie Ferguson points out, “there's absolutely no reason why single parents and their children shouldn't be able to participate fully in the economy”. Single parenthood – and single motherhood in particular – have long been held up as examples of irresponsibility, as though the right size for a family is delivered via some magic prescription from on high (or failing that, Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank).

Children need food and shelter and warmth, and they also need people who love them. That is all. The sex of the parent or parents does not matter. That so many people see it otherwise is based not on fact, but ideology. It’s impossible to disentangle the insistence that families need two parents from the patriarchal belief in male ownership of wives and children.

It is not so long ago that women had no custody rights whatsoever on divorce and we shouldn’t underestimate the close association of prejudice with the preservation of privilege. Financial instability and economic exploitation remain ways of reining in the independence of single mothers and their children. If single parent families were allowed to prosper, patriarchy – in its most essential meaning, a father-led society – would well and truly crumble.

A society which recognises collective responsibilities and dependencies; that we are all of us one accident or illness away from needing others; that men’s economic privilege is built on the back of women’s unpaid work; that inequality and isolation are not inevitabilities – such a society should be the one we desire. We must stop allowing children to go hungry in order to make the prejudices of capitalist patriarchy seem like virtues.

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