Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The state's your mother, your father...

There are times when I feel like the small boy who wonders why the Emperor has no clothes on.

With unemployment for recent graduates running at 20% (and a further 40%  in low-skilled work and unable to secure what the ONS defines as 'graduate jobs'), and in the general population at 8.6%, why does the government seem hell-bent on getting mothers of young children into the workplace?

Every morning this week, while one in five of last year's final-year students is still curled up in bed with nothing to look forward to but a day of sending out yet more CVs or signing on once again, an army of working mothers will be frantically trying to orchestrate the demands of preparing for a day's work with childcare arrangements for their infants.

Don't get me wrong - I am all for equality in the workplace and believe that men and women should be treated the same way;  it's just that, when it comes to child-rearing, it seems that my priorities, based on personal and professional experience, differ somewhat from the prevailing Zeitgeist.

Having taken on the responsibility of bringing a new human being into the world, I cannot imagine willingly deciding that his need for consistent care and personal contact during infancy should be subordinate to my right to a career, even had I been prepared to entrust his earliest intellectual and moral development to someone else.

It was, admittedly, easier to be a stay-at-home parent in a deprived area during the 1990s recession; having one stable, albeit modest, household income meant we were relatively privileged and the necessary economies and self-denial were nothing out of the ordinary for the community in which we lived - although they might seem extreme to today's smartphone-and-Sky-TV generation.

Over the intervening years, the arrival of tax credits has dramatically skewed the picture, as have the abolition of MIRAS for the family home and the inability to transfer tax allowance to non-working partners. Successive government policies, aided and abetted by consistent media bias, have attempted to portray the working mother as the natural default setting.

We've been treated recently to abundant media exposure of 'welfare queens', flaunting vast broods that, judging by the closeness in age of the children, owe as much to modern anaesthesia in childbirth and the loss of the natural contraceptive effects of breastfeeding as they do to a flawed benefits system.

The aim of much of the 'Woman's Hour' and media-led 'having-it-all' propaganda appears to be to tar all stay-at-home mothers with the same brush as these largely ill-educated women with a suggestion that they are wasting their time and abilities.

It's hard not to see it all as a general condemnation of all parents as unfit to bring up their own children, a suggestion that state-approved institutions or individuals will do the job better than the biological parents, even when this is achieved at the cost of mass unemployment among the single and childless at the start of what should be lifelong careers.

While there are undoubtedly people out there who embark on parenthood with less forethought and consideration than they would give the purchase of a new television set and whose children could well be be better off in a secure and stimulating nursery, it seems wrong to rig the system so that caring for your own child becomes a luxury available only to the rich or those in receipt of state benefits, including the tiny minority who exploit the tax credit scheme.

It may generate plenty of economic activity in the childcare sector, but to subsidise childcare for working parents while paying to maintain the childless in enforced idleness as they look for work surely makes very little sense. Why not use the same money to give stay-at-home mothers an income that recognizes the importance of their work and free up the jobs for new workers?

And what of the children? Studies suggest that nursery care before the age of three may contribute to insecurity, aggression and an inability to concentrate - characteristics that any teacher can tell you are rife in today's classrooms. Naturally, the defenders of early daycare are up in arms at this - 'my child is perfectly well-adjusted!', they exclaim - but where's the control for this massive social experiment? In any case, what suits one child may be completely wrong for another.

Despite government claims of one million would-be working parents deterred by childcare costs - cited as justification for the latest tax breaks - no one really knows how many mothers (or fathers) would choose to stay at home with their under-5s, given better financial provision and a society that appreciates and supports the role that parental input plays in a child's emotional, social and intellectual development.

Surely the many rights and liberties which we expect from a civilized society should include the freedom to raise one's own child without financial penalties.

11 comments:

  1. It's a rare day when I find reason to disagree with you Macheath, but today is that day.

    ""Why not use the money to pay stay-at-home mothers an income that recognizes the importance of their work and free up the jobs for new workers?""

    Because raising a child is not work in the financial sense of the word. When a person earns a wage, that money comes from a larger pot that the earner has helped to create (Or should).

    When you work for a company, you help make money for that company. Your wage then come from that money.

    A parent raising a child creates and produces nothing. They do it for themselves, not for society. Therefore they should have no claim on a wage paid for by society.

    Raising a child may by hard work in the physical and mental sense, but this does not justify a payment from the tax payers pot. When parents choose to have a child they should be making their own financial preparations for doing so beforehand.

    I wonder what kind of mother the government is talking about when they say they want more in work? It's not the mother who is supported by a father with a good job and who doesn't need state handouts.
    It's the mother who is supported by the state. The mother who thinks the world owes her a living and should be paying for her kids.

    ""Surely the many rights and liberties which we expect from a civilized society should include the freedom to raise one's own child without financial penalties.""

    Indeed, but we are not talking about financial penalties. A tax is a penalty, not paying a benefit is not.

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  2. A well-reasoned response and I stand duly corrected for taking some verbal shortcuts.

    The main problem is that, largely thanks to rising housing costs, many households now rely on two incomes to meet regular expenses. The days when a husband could maintain a non-working wife and children on an average wage are long gone in many parts of the country; we found it difficult enough 20 years ago and many costs have risen dramatically in real terms since.

    This has given rise to the odd situation of woman A going out to work while woman B looks after woman A's child, paid for with state help. (And why should this be? She wouldn't expect the state to help pay her cleaner or dog-walker, should she employ one.)

    All I am suggesting is that the money paid out in this way might make all the difference for those who would prefer to raise their own children but are trapped by housing costs and household bills.

    A better solution might be a student-type loan to be paid off when the children are older, but seeing what a mess TPTB are making of that one, I don't hold out much hope.

    The 'blame' can be laid squarely on the introduction of mortgages based on a joint salary (around 1990, IIRR) which fuelled a dramatic price hike - not, I suspect, entirely unconnected with the property portfolios being built up on expenses by MPS, but that's another story.

    While the aim may be to get single mothers into work, governments have tied themselves in knots to avoid the appearance of discrimination - otherwise why not allow the transfer of the non-working parent's tax allowance so that married mothers can stay at home and free up jobs while their children are small?

    More subsidies? Well, the taxpayer already pays for the entire state schooling system, so there is a precedent.

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  3. Great post - I agree with every word.

    "given better financial provision and a society that appreciates and supports the role that parental input plays in a child's emotional, social and intellectual development."

    That's the key isn't it? As you so aptly put it - where's the control for this massive social experiment?

    Of course there isn't one. It was done to rack up the size of our mortgages, never mind what crucial early nurturing might be pulled up by the roots.

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  4. One for, one against...

    AKH, in darker moments, I find myself wondering whether mass daycare is not merely a product of the drive for economic activity but an end in itself; a way to minimise the influence of all parents as a collective punishment for the serious shortcomings of a minority.

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  5. Engineering only works if all the parts work. Social engineering only works if all the elements work. So what happens when they don't?

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  6. Demetrius, if it's social engineering, they never will.

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  7. Looking at the way some parents treat their children, I wonder why - in this age of safe, legal, available contraception - they ever bothered to have them...

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  8. Julia, much real and virtual ink has been spilled over that one.

    At one end of the income scale, where 'conceive early and conceive often' appears to be the case, anecdotal evidence suggests a combination of carelessness, the benefits safety net and 'celebrity mum' media coverage has much to do with the birth rate - not to mention that childbirth itself is no longer talked of in awed whispers because of the pain involved; it would be interesting to know whether a return to gas-and-air for all routine births would affect the numbers.

    I suspect that many immature mothers cannot really grasp the fact that the cute little baby they dress in designer clothes will grow into something far more challenging within a few years.

    Ironically, the trophy baby emerges among high earning career women too; I once witnessed three small designer-label-clad children - the youngest barely 4 months old - slumped in front of the television on a warm, sunny morning while the childminder listened to the radio and read a magazine in the kitchen.

    The mother, out at work all day, is an infant teacher and early years education consultant.

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  9. Over the intervening years, the arrival of tax credits has dramatically skewed the picture, as have the abolition of MIRAS for the family home and the inability to transfer tax allowance to non-working partners.

    Yes indeedy and all the above in comments too. They just cannot get out and stay out.

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  10. By the way, disagree with you on this:

    A well-reasoned response and I stand duly corrected for taking some verbal shortcuts.

    Your reasoning was sound. Stay at home mothers are worthy of support.

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  11. Thanks, JH.

    The verbal shortcuts - referring to 'income' and 'work' - were to prevent the piece becoming seriously unwieldy but Bucko does have a point; what a stay-at-home mother does is economically ineffective, however valuable it is to society (and to the mother and child).

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