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Mick Hume

The state declares war on single mothers

A 23-year old single mother from Warwickshire was jailed for six months in August, because she left her two-year old child home alone while she went out to work. The woman said that she could not afford to pay a childminder as well as buy food and clothes out of her £100-a-week wage packet. Judge Michael Harrison Hall said that she had treated her daughter worse than a dog.

The jailing of the single mother won support from Tory health secretary Virginia Bottomley and other notables. Even commentators who quibbled about the prison sentence acquiesced to the idea that it was right to brand her as a criminal.

Nobody made the simple point that it is none of judge Michael Harrison Hall's business to dictate how a desperate women with no childcare makes ends meet, let alone to lock her up for failing to meet M'lud's own high standards of motherhood.

Nor has anybody responded to the new moral war against single mothers by asking the basic question: what gives government ministers, judges, social workers, doctors, vicars or any other official do-gooders the right to tell women how to run their lives?

When the authorities make such a major national issue out of something like the Warwickshire 'home alone' case, it should immediately raise suspicions about their motives. After all, if they were truly concerned with the welfare of the children of single mothers, a solution would appear to be straightforward enough. They could ensure that working class women receive a civilised income which allows them to live like humans rather than dogs. And they could provide decent childcare facilities for all.

It would not exactly be hard to improve on the current state of affairs in this country. Britain has three million under-fives, and just 360 000 places in state day nurseries or with registered childminders - a ratio of around 9:1. Worse still, less than one per cent of under-threes can get a place in publicly funded day care today.

Even if you can find a childcare place, it is getting harder and harder to pay for it. A survey published in the Employment Gazette days after the Warwickshire woman was jailed showed that, when working mothers have to pay for childcare, it now costs them on average a quarter of their wages. The less you earn, the higher the proportion of your pay goes on childminding. And the hardest hit of all are low-paid single mothers. The jailed 23-year old could not afford to pay half of her wages for childcare.

None of these issues featured in the hysteria which was orchestrated around the home alone case. Instead the authorities sought to make a public example of the young woman, to stigmatise her as a typically immoral 'unmarried mum' of today. Jailing her and parading the case across the national media was the modern equivalent of the old village custom of stitching a scarlet letter 'A' (for adulteress) on to the dress of such a 'fallen woman'.

The Warwickshire jailing is just one episode in what is becoming something of a crusade against single mothers, especially if they are young and working class (and more so still if they are black).

Government ministers accuse them of sponging off the British taxpayer, and jumping the waiting list for council housing. Sociologists and criminologists blame them for an alleged decline in parental responsibility and rise in juvenile delinquency. In short, the new consensus, often wrapped in academic or even child-friendly jargon, is that single mothers are nasty little breeders.

The implications of this campaign are serious, and not only for the single mothers at the sharp end. It is paving the way for potentially devastating cuts in welfare benefits. And it is reinforcing the dangerous notion of 'family values'.

The government is floating plenty of proposals to cut single mothers' access to benefits. One idea is to curtail the right to the housing benefit with which they pay rent, and instead make young single mothers live either with their parents or in state-appointed hostels - a sort of updated workhouse. The new Child Support Act has already shifted financial responsibility for the children of single mothers away from the welfare state and on to 'errant fathers'. Women who don't cooperate in hunting down the man who did the dirty deed face even more intense surveillance from the social security people, and loss of benefits.

For the authorities, the virtue of a moral crusade against single mothers is that it could help them both to cut welfare spending, and to find scapegoats for the crisis of the system. Crudely put, the message is this: if you're angry about the collapse of public services or afraid that society is falling apart, don't blame the government, blame teenagers bringing up babies on social security. In typical nineties fashion, those stuck at the bottom are expected to carry the can for the failures of capitalist society.

The wider consequence of this crusade is to strengthen the case for traditional 'family values', as the alternative to degenerate single parenthood. Those in power want to promote the nuclear family as natural and intrinsically good. They understand that reinforcing family values will tend to underpin a conservative and conventional outlook on all issues. They understand, too, that it can legitimise their attempts to make families, rather than the state, bear the burden of looking after the young, the old and the infirm.

Family values enjoy a formidable con-sensus of support today. Even those who complain about the government's treatment of single parents will usually concede that yes, in an ideal world, a two- parent family is the best way to bring up children. The notion that the family is in some way natural is more or less accepted across the board. And once that notion is endorsed, it becomes impossible to challenge the basic assumptions behind the moral war against single motherhood.

Yet in truth it is no more 'natural' to live and bring up children in a conventional family than it is to do so alone. The modern family unit is the product of a system in which the wealth of society is concentrated in the hands of a capitalist minority, and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves as best we can. As a consequence, people cling together in families for support. Those arrangements are then dressed up in religious and moral mumbo-jumbo, and presented as the natural, eternal way of things.

In current circumstances, it is certainly harder to cope with children on your own. But that, too, is a consequence of the way in which society is organised. If domestic tasks like childcare were taken out of the private sphere, and made the responsibility of society as a whole, it would become more possible for people to organise their lives as they want, rather than as they are told they should. Instead, today, the trend is towards privatising more and more functions of the welfare state, under the banners of family values and community care.

The way in which single mothers are stigmatised today, and their choices limited by monetary and moral constraints, is a prime example of how capitalism will mess up your life.

Young single mothers are accused of bleeding the welfare state. But the real problem is that, living on part-time wages and income support, they don't get nearly enough of society's resources.

Those who complain about the money spent on providing income support for single mothers like to emphasise the headline figure - currently around £3.4 billion a year. That might sound like a lot; but spread over almost a million single parents and more than two million children, it translates into poverty of the kind that paved the way to the tragic Warwickshire case.

Put that 'excessive' annual bill of £3.4 billion into perspective as part of capitalist society's wealth, and it is peanuts; equal to a bit more than 10 per cent of Britain's military budget, or just 1.5 per cent of what the bankers and money men throw across the desks of the City's foreign currency dealing rooms every single day.

The consensus today is that single mothers are a problem, and that a partial solution is to provide them with more compulsory supervision and guidance: from social services, from the Child Support Agency, from the churches, from the courts.

But the real problem is the way that these and other official agencies increasingly interfere in people's lives in pursuit of their own cynical motives: seeking to control the way that we live, and to exploit our problems in politically motivated campaigns like the crusade against single mothers.

To many people, the argument that a single mother should be punished for not looking after her child properly might seem like common sense. But in the hands of the state, it is an insidious idea. Today a judge sentences a woman to jail for leaving a child alone. If we accept his right to do so, what comes next?

If the authorities can dictate the conditions of childcare to a single mother, why not to all parents? After successfully using the case of the home alone two-year old to set a precedent, what is to stop them imposing new rules tomorrow about how people raise their five-year olds, 10-year olds, or teenagers?

We live in authoritarian times, when a court in Norfolk can jail a middle-aged married couple for arguing too loudly in their home. Against that background it is important to give no ground at all to the case for more state interference in our affairs - especially when it is raised under cover of an emotive issue like the protection of children. So next time they start on about 'home alone' crimes, let's tell them to leave single mothers alone.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993

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