Monday, November 12, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 10: The Politics of Parenting: Confronting the F Word

Matthew "two chapters" Taylor returns with a chapter about how marvellous parents are for children.
In terms of policy it is crucial that welfare provision does not punish couples in relation to lone parents, but given the advantages to children of two-parent models [3 would be greedy], the state must take pains to ensure that tax and benefits do not discourage it, and that we do not allow the idea that children do just as well when mum is on her own. The fact is that on average they do worse and we need to admit it.
I will credit Taylor that when he says "do not allow the idea" he means "disagree with the idea", otherwise, ouch, this is suddenly all about crimethink.

The whole tone of the chapter is that this is a daring kind of position. The F word of the title is not fuck or federalism, but family. As if this couldn't be said without attacking single parents, which is nonsense. But I must say that I am utterly oblivious to the outrage that Taylor clearly expected this chapter to generate. Whether it is families, or "moral issues" or immigration, I am sick of people complaining that they "must be allowed" to talk about it. Stop bleating and just get on with talking about it, will you?

Taylor rightly attacks the Tory focus on marriage not children. The Labour determination to send single parents to work is a more difficult target. There are swings and roundabouts to working for a single parent, depending on many factors, and generalised judgements fail.

But the real problem with Taylor's argument, the conflict which he fails to address, is that if the system rewards the two-parent family, then by contrast it punishes those families most in need: the single-parent families. Yes, it is absurd that two parents on benefits will be better off if they split up, and much better off if one was working. It is also absurd to talk about the most disadvantaged children while targetting assistance at the more fortunate. There's a nettle here to grasp one way or the other - not of a moral assault on single parents, but a financial one.

Taylor rightly observes that we seem, as a society, to have low expectations of fathers when it comes to bringing up their children. So I am a little surprised that there is no discussion of the trend in Colorado family courts and elsewhere to award equal parenting time (duty) to each parent, and a presumption against deeming either parent 'absent'. This would seem to reflect the change in attitudes towards fathers that Taylor advocates. Perhaps there are problems with it too, but it is surely worth a mention.

Instead of tackling these difficult questions head on, the chapter spends most of its time on the safe and easy ground of the widely recognised crises in childhood and parenting: parent(s) always working, kids in front of the TV/Space Invaders, etc. And so often the answer lies in saying the f word, breaking the taboos that prevent governments addressing these problems, rather than what would be rather more useful: policy suggestions for actual interventions that might do some good. If you can't think of any such interventions, then perhaps what you are calling a taboo is in fact a sound division of labour between the family and the state.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good point Joe, my parents split up and no financial incentives would have made it right for these two people who absolutely hated each other to stay together.

The problem is that without having firsthand experience of what it is to be in a low income family, not many could understand that rarely is it a lifestyle choice that could be avoided by "financial incentives".

Equally, to punish such families who often are living hand to mouth and getting through each day would ba an assualt on some of the most vulnerable in our society - with the child ultimately paying the price.

My "single" mum started out on benefits and was there for us all the time, but then worked full-time and my brother and I spent long summer holidays alone watching tv in our council house living room and babysitting each other even though we were both under 12 (childcare impacts on a single income beyond belief). I'd love to know which one society would deem the better situation??

Either way, we were much better off than we would have been with our parents continuing to scream at each other in the nice lifestyle and big rural house we had before they split.