This summer’s riots have given impetus to regressive Tory rhetoric on morality and family life. The “failings” of single parents (single mothers especially) are central to that rhetoric.
The Daily Mail had its own set of statistics and accompanying explanations.
• 57% of single parents have never been married and have chosen to be single parents — the lure of benefits and council houses is behind that choice.
• 75% of children born to single parents will fail (fail, not do less well, but fail) at school.
• 70% of these children will be drug addicts and 50% will have alcohol problem.
Laughable, sure, but the constant drip of invective about being benefit scroungers, the people responsible for declining moral standards and that your kids will fail affects how you feel.
And material attacks on single parents are getting worse.
Single parents claiming benefit now have to be actively seeking work when their youngest child is seven. If you fail to meet aspects of your “job seeker’s agreement” — which can include being late for or missing an appointment — then your benefit could be cut for between one and 26 weeks. Ill children, school pick-ups... all are no “excuse”.
You also have to do voluntary work i.e. work for free, as part of your job seeker’s agreement. Many women I know are “volunteering” in schools for months and years.
Meanwhile childcare centres are closing, making it more of a struggle to work or study.
Job cuts mean there are very few jobs that fit school hours or have flexible working patterns.
Social housing is scarce and housing benefit has been cut.
When responding to all of this there is a tendency to be defensive and apologetic. To point out how many single parents work, etc. Or, worse, to say “I didn’t set out to be a single parent”. It is seen as something shameful and outside the normal morals of society.
Throughout history condemnation of particular forms of living has been common — a morality created by the church and by the state. It has often been backed up by punishment.
The singer and single mum Jamelia did an interesting programme for BBC 3 recently (bbc.in/simums) showing how in Victorian times women having children “out of marriage” were sent to the poor house, their children taken from them because they would be a morally bad influence.
Even in the 1960s single mums were being sent to homes while they had their children and then forced to have the children adopted.
We look at those times in horror, at the suffering endured by those women and children. Yet how much has changed?
The gains made by the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s fundamentally altered the lives of millions of women. Access to divorce, abortion, contraception, equal pay, refuges, childcare meant women could choose to be a single parent. Women could begin to control their bodies, not be forced to give up their children, and leave unhappy or violent relationships.
This women’s movement was born out of class struggle and, in the early days, led by the demands of socialist feminism. Women’s struggle was tied to the broader labour movement: we fought alongside working class men but also demanded that our rights be taken seriously and fought for too.
Those battles changed the lives of the women involved in the movement and of many more. But what now? According to the Tories, single parents and bad parenting are the cause of the recent riots. Criminality, not poverty, alienation, and the lack of a labour movement fighting against job losses and cuts in services, is the real problem. We need more discipline and you need a man to properly administer that; send all these kids to military school — that will sort them.
Perpetuating these ideas provides the ruling class with the ideological cover they need to make further cuts in benefits, dismantle the welfare state and introduce more discipline into schools. It helps deflect public opinion, and reflects a long held hatred of working class women by the ruling class.
During the Paris Commune in 1871 the movement of the working class addressed the emancipation of women. “Unions libres” — relationships outside of marriage — were made equal to marriage, children born outside marriage were to be given equal rights, divorce was legalised, moves made towards free education, churches’ role in education and morals challenged. The ruling class, of course, were outraged by the immorality of it all.
In Russia in 1917 moves towards the economic liberation of women combined with legal and social rights for women and children, much to the outrage of international ruling class opinion. But when our movement is defeated rights for women are trampled on and the ruling class regurgitate all the old rubbish.
We need to state again there is no such thing as, nor has there ever been a perfect, stable family unit — relationships change, some are good some are bad. We have the right to live in the way we choose.