Conservative Budget Cuts: An assault on single mothers

The Budget is a direct threat to all women who believe their future should not depend on the ability to catch a man.

If the Conservative Party is looking for a theme song that sums up its message for the next election, it could do worse than Beyoncé Knowles's pop smash "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)".

The Tories have already made it clear that a return to marriage as the fundamental framework of socio-economic control is the aspirational core of the party's ideology. Tuesday's emergency Budget sent an uncompromising message to women who have the temerity to divorce or to remain unmarried: single ladies will pay heavy penalties, especially if they have children.

As well as excising the health-in-pregnancy grant and other rare, precious tokens of state support for mothers, the new Budget expressly delineates welfare penalties and work sanctions for single parents, nine out of every ten of whom are women. Single mothers will now be required to find a job in today's shrivelled labour market as soon as their children are of school age, but as employers are under no obligation to pay a living wage that incorporates enough money to cover childcare, work itself will be no guarantee of a decent standard of living.

The changes to housing benefit -- justified with solemn anecdotes about chav families living in castles that sounded a little like the Chancellor had muddled his notes with a copy of the Daily Mail -- will also imperil lone-parent families, which are three times as likely to live in rented accommodation as families with two resident parents.

The charity Shelter has warned that the cuts will "push many households over the edge, triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness".

The Tories may have sidelined their plans to recognise marriage in the tax system, but the cuts announced in the new Budget are far more disastrous for women's rights than the crass symbolism of tax breaks for married couples, making it significantly more difficult for women to contemplate raising children without a man, any man, to offer the support that the new government takes moral exception at providing.

"Solutions" to poverty

Lisa Ansell, a single mother from London, explained that the new Budget may destroy her chances of building a stable home for herself and her three-year-old daughter. "I have worked all my life, and done everything right, but the VAT hike and housing benefit cuts mean I'm sitting here with a calculator wondering how I'm supposed to survive," she said.

"This attack on single mothers is directly in line with Conservative rhetoric about encouraging marriage," Ansell said. "If the only way for a poor woman to get out of poverty is a man, that has serious consequences for people like me and my daughter."

Like many lone parents, Ansell was relying on a job in the public sector to support her family, but after a freeze on recruitment in preparation for the cuts announced last week, the work she had lined up has disappeared.

"I am an intelligent woman and a good mother, but on Budget day, I woke up to find that I am society's garbage," she said. "If the new government feels that any woman who has a child with a man should be left in poverty if she separates from him, with a new sexual relationship her only route out, then it should just say so."

David Willetts MP, who is to sit on a new task force for children and families, articulates the Conservative attitude to women and the state with icy clarity in his recent book The Pinch. Lamenting the rise in divorce and praising marriage as a solution to poverty, Willetts complains: "A welfare system that was originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is being slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men."

A green paper on "the family", released in January by Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, suggested that lone parenthood is responsible for "fracturing British society", and that governments should send a clear signal that "families matter".

Unfortunately for millions of parents, partners and children in Britain, only certain families truly matter to the Conservative Party. The entire premise of the Tory marital fetish is that "families" are not just any old riff-raff who love one other and are committed to each other's well-being: the proper form of the family in Conservative Britain is a rigid economic arrangement involving two married, cohabiting parents, preferably owning property and drawing as little state support as possible. Only 37 per cent of the population enjoy this sort of "traditional" arrangement, but Tory social policy has rarely taken the reality of working people's lives into account when imposing its diktats.

Unfeeling fetish

One does not need to be a socialist feminist to understand that the history of women's liberation has always been about economics. Indeed, after suffrage was achieved, the key victories of the women's movement in the 1970s involved the fight to allow women and children to be financially independent of men should the need arise.

The hypocrisy of the Tory family fetish, which rewards married, middle-class women for staying at home with their children while demonising poor, single women for doing the same, should remind the British left that even the most fundamental of progressive reforms can be reversed unless progressives remain vigilant. Contemporary Conservative policy on "the family" encodes a cold, reactionary moral agenda in the rhetoric of "allowing people real choice over their lives".

But this Budget threatens women's hard-won freedom to make important choices for themselves and their families: the choice to leave an unsuitable or violent partner without facing financial ruin; the choice to remain unmarried; the choice to live a dignified life independent of men, whether or not we have children. These choices are fundamental to women's rights. They are not optional extras that can be trimmed from the Budget whenever the nation feels the pinch; they are core provisions for female security in an unjust, patriarchal world, and they are priceless.

This Budget is not merely a repulsive moral assault on single mothers. It is a direct threat to all women who believe that our futures should not depend on the ability to catch and keep a man. The coalition has claimed that the cuts announced on Tuesday are "unavoidable", but the new Budget looks anything but reactive: it looks, among other things, like a concerted attack on women's hard-won freedoms, an attack based, in Harriet Harman's words, on ideology rather than economics.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.