Monday, 8 December 2008

"Tough" talk solves nothing

In the wake of several cases of quite outrageous child abuse, most notably those of "Baby P" and Shannon Matthews, politicians and right-wing commentators have been falling over each other to push for hard-line measures that do far more to sate rabid outrage than to address the root cause of any problems. The government, typically, has used these issues as a case for welfare "reform" - or, in more honest language, further limitations on the availability of welfare for poor people. The right wing press, also very typically, has been promoting ideas that far outdo the ruling party in terms of Draconian viciousness. Led by Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail and Jon Gaunt of The Sun, they have been calling for the abolition of child benefit.

Like most arguments by the right, their case is superficially compelling but utterly disintegrates if you examine it too closely. In Phillips' words, child benefit is "the seminal link between man-hating feminism and welfare dependency" and "the linchpin of serial irresponsibility and social breakdown" not to mention "the biggest single incentive for lone parenthood." The previoulsy mentioned cases of child abuse show that "child benefit, and all the multifarious other welfare incentives to irresponsibility, are intrinsically linked to the emergence of households where, in truth, civilisation has given way to barbarism" and there is, so she says, only one solution:
If we want to end these appalling abuses, we have to stop the welfare system from subsidising births out of wedlock. Child benefit has to go, along with the rest of the engine for mass fatherlessness that our welfare system has become.
It is important, straight away, to dispel the myths that Phillips and her co-thinkers are perpetuating with such non-sequitural links between child abuse and welfare before we move on to talk about any real solution. Progressive action that addresses the root of the problems is only made more difficult whilst ideological fallacies, motivated by prejudice rather than reason, persist.

Firstly, as HM Revenue & Customs' own statistics demonstrate, the number of child benefit claimants and of children for whom it was claimed has remained near-enough constant over the past eight-years. Though the number has fluctuated, there has been no significant rise in claimants, and certainly not a steady or a rapid rise, contrary to Phillips' assertion that this "incentive" has led to a massively increased "emergence" of the "barbarism" of single-parenthood. At the same time, the average number of children per claimant family has remained between 1.76 and 1.82, with one and two-child families counting for 84% of claimant households, hardly the "production-line cash cows of the welfare state" of Phillips' dystopian fantasism. There were just forty-six more children on the receiving end of the benefit in August 2007 than there were in May 2000.

It is also important to note, as explained on the HMRC website, that "Child Benefit is available to families with children aged up to 16, or up to 20 and in full-time non-advanced education or certain forms of training" and "is not income-based." To clarify, child-benefit is neither restricted to single parents, nor the poor and unemployed. Even setting aside the fact that it is absurd to believe something such as raising a child alone can be "incentivised," that these personal circumstances are not part of the criteria for recieving payments goes a long way to show the level to which that belief is based in fantasy.

However, it is easy to discern the prejudice that this fantasism is grounded in. Those who rail against the imagined "incentivisation" and "promotion" of single parenthood often, as Phillips does, look back with horror at how "illegitimacy [was] abolished from the statute book" and wish to restore the "stigma and shame" of simply having or being a child born out of wedlock. This is little more than vicious snobbery veiled in "traditionalism." Yes, it is better for any child to have two parents rather than one caring for it (and, despite another irrational prejdice Phillips co-thinkers also hold, this includes homosexual parents, and marriage has no bearing upon it) but this does not mean there aren't a vast majority of single parents who do an amazing job. And it certainly doesn't mean that we should cast out and cut off those who do not fit this mould. Single parenthood is not the "lifestyle choice" that the right so scornfully suggests, and there are many reasons. Rape. Incest. The breakdown of a previously stable relationship. Women fleeing domestic abuse. And, yes, accidents.

Should we make sure that victims of rape and incest who bear children get no Child Benefit and be made to live in shame because of their "illegitimate" child? Should parents be made to "stay together for the kids" even if they don't love one another (something children are far from blind to)? Should women be forced to stay with a violent and abusive spouse just because he happens to have been the one to impregnate her? And should all single women who fall pregnant be forced into the workhouse? We have long moved on from such reactionary attitudes of the past, and no doubt those who think as Phillips does will protest that they do not favour any such ill-founded and hateful measures. But, I still have to ask, if you decry the abolition of "illegitimacy" and removing the stigma of single parenthood as the catalyst of "social breakdown," and you want "to stop the welfare system from subsidising births out of wedlock" then how can what you espouse be any better?

Contrary to the right, the solution to the problems of child abuse and perpetual joblessness doesn't involve stopping "subsidising births out of wedlock," as such a measure is unneccesarily punitive towards far too many people who come under neither heading. Working single parents, single parents who cannot work because of the age of their children, cohabiting parents, married parents, gay parents, and of course the children in question, for whom said benefit equals food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and a roff over their heads. No, the solution is far more long-term and far less inane, simplistic, and hateful.

Of course, we do need to make an effort to get more people into work so that the welfare state works as it was intended - as a safety net for the poorest in society - because inactivity does breed apathy and detatchment whilst work and job satisfaction lead to a more fulfilling life. To this end, we need to reform employment itself, at least whilst we remain in the undesirable position of a capitalist society where the majority must rent themselves out to a minority who reap the profits of their labour. We can do this by making sure that the minimum wage is always sustained at the level of a living wage - the TUC estimate at current inflation levels being £6.70, a whole £1.20 above the current minimum - and by according the notion of job satisfaction greater importance than it currently recieves. I think that the best way to address this is by changing the role that those employed in job centres undertake. They shouldn't be mere form-fillers, but teachers who can offer retraining to those who want or need it as well as counsellors to those seeking employment within their current skill levels. This way, the efficiency of the role can be increased and we can begin to see less long-term jobless and more who are temporarily between employment.

With single and poor parents specifically, we need to make sure that they get the help they need. The idea of providing clothing, housing, and sustenance to those who need it rather than the money for them to get it is one that I rather like, appealking as it does to the libertarian socialist principle of "to each according to his need," and will help to protect certain people from themselves. Simply cutting off the money, on the other hand, would serve only to make them - and, of course, their dependants - far worse off.

Contrary to the strawman argument of the Right, nobody is suggesting that we simply pour money upon those who are unwilling to work or that we "promote" joblessness and single-parenthood. Instead, the point being made is that threats and punitive measures are not only inhumane but counter-productive. We need real solutions to the problems of poverty that are largely a result of the society we live in and the injustices of private property, not stereotypes and rhetoric that dehumanise the most wretched as an excuse to reap yet more misery from the poor and working class.