There was a vaguely depressing article in the Guardian yesterday (http://society.guardian.co.uk/interview/story/0,,1855782,00.html) which had John Hutton, the minister in charge of work and pensions discussing ideas for tackling child poverty. The depressing part was less the existence of child poverty (which is hardly news), than the governments suggestions for tackling it. John Hutton made the right noises about child poverty being a moral issue, but his solution is pretty simplistic. Everybody should be in paid work. Take this, for example:
Hutton, his deputy, Jim Murphy, and their new chief adviser, Lisa Harker, have alighted on two distinct priority groups that badly need to be helped if poverty is to be tackled: first, lone parents; and second, the unemployed non-benefit-claiming partner in a family where the other member of the couple is in work. Hutton points out that 40% of the children living in poverty are in such households. He says: “People assume poverty is confined to lone parents. It is absolutely not.”
Hutton admits these unemployed individuals in couples – often parents with children – are a new frontier for the employment service since, as they are not claiming benefit, they are not in contact with Jobcentre Plus, the government’s employment service.
“It is a challenge for us,” he says…”If such households are to be lifted out of poverty, they need someone in a full-time job, and the other partner working part-time. It is perfectly fair if they don’t want to work for whatever reason, but we need to extend the help, advice and support we make available to them. They can make whatever decisions they want. It is a free country. I would not want to force them to work, but at the very least we need to better signpost to childcare services such as Sure Start.
Surely the real moral issue here is that it is no longer possible to maintain a family on one full-time wage. (The poverty being measured is relative, rather than absolute, but even relative poverty is unpleasant). The government ought to be thinking about whether the minimum wage is too low, not how to get more people into inadequately paid jobs. Similarly, the governments solution to the problem of lone parents in poverty is to get them into work and Hutton implies that there needs to be more attempts to get even those with relatively young children (under 11) into work.
Some mothers (and its overwhelmingly mothers were talking about in both cases) even of small children would prefer to be in paid work if it was available. (I do myself). And the government has done a lot to help working mothers in terms of childcare provision and subsidies. But the implication of their policies seems to be that full time motherhood is now to be regarded as a luxury item, only suitable for the relatively small percentage of families where one partner has a well paid full-time job. Yet other parts of the government are insisting that parenting must be more intensive, more care must be taken to raise well-behaved children and to support their educational progress. (There is also a separate pressure point in that grandparents, who in many cases would traditionally provide additional childcare and support, are themselves expected to be in paid employment, even beyond the retirement age).
Why does the government not value full time parenting? Because, I suppose, its economic benefits cannot be measured directly. What worries me is that the recent political debate seems to make motherhood a zero-sum game. Either parties aim to benefit working mothers or non-working mothers, but not both. David Camerons ideas about transferable tax allowances arent much help for stay at home mothers because they dont much benefit those only just above the tax threshold. Maybe its time for feminists to revisit an old campaign. Rather than wages for housework, how about wages for parenting?