"Working motherhood" is political and divisive in a way that "working fatherhood" is not. Why?

When you are a mother, earning money or not earning money is interpreted as a broader statement about the role of women in general and mothers in particular.

200,000 mothers forced into jobs, screams the front page of yesterday’s Telegraph. It’s enough to send shivers down the spine. Imagine being a mother and going to work! It’s as though life really isn’t a 1950s sitcom after all!

The Telegraph is responding to this week’s ONS report into women in the labour market, which the newspaper claims shows that “almost 200,000 women in two-parent families with dependent children have re-entered the workplace since 2011”. It’s a sharp increase but not exactly evidence of coercion, unless one counts needing money as “being forced” (in which case, aren’t we all?).

I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m a mother in full-time paid employment. I know that there are particular reasons why I don’t want to be in the office day in, day out. I want to spend more time with my children. I worry about all the hours they spend in wraparound care. I panic about how quickly they’re growing and how much I’ll regret not having been at the school gates at 3:15 every afternoon. Sometimes I feel a failure. Are you happy now, right-wing press? I wish things were different but there we are .It’s all a bit of a fudge. Only a person who’s been raised with an absurd sense of entitlement could believe his or her family is owed the perfect work-life balance.

And yet the sheer breadth of media responses to the ONS report suggests that saying “it’s a bit of a fudge” isn’t enough. “Working motherhood” remains deeply political and divisive in a way that “working fatherhood” is not. When you are a mother, earning money or not earning money is interpreted as a broader statement about the role of women in general and mothers in particular. Pressure groups such as Mothers At Home Matter (MAHM) still push the idea that you’re either with stay-at-home mums or against them, yet for many of us, the decisions we make regarding our working lives are simply more pragmatic and personal than that.

I know, deep down, that things aren’t as they should be. We’re dealing with an economic system that no interest in recognising the value of unpaid domestic labour. The balance of power between employers and employees is appallingly skewed, making it harder and harder to ask for change. Low pay and high childcare costs exclude some potential employees from the workforce altogether. For these reasons working motherhood needs to remain a political issue, not least as part of a broader discussion on how we improve the social and economic position of all carers.

Right now, though, we don’t really talk about this. The needs of the many have become subordinate to the self-serving debates of the few. Working motherhood becomes all about Sheryl Sandberg-esque self-realisation or “I don’t know how she does it” comedy self-hatred. Meanwhile, stay-at-home motherhood becomes an exclusive club for the “right” kind of family (MAHM is very clear on standing up for the rights of “single-wage families” who “manage on one income”. Families who manage on one parent -- those who, if ever they earned enough to begin with, will be hardest hit by the child benefit cuts MAHM criticises so much -- don’t seem to get a look in). Social stereotypes that don’t reflect the experience of most families dominate political debate and media analysis.

It’s all very well to claim life should be fairer. Of course it should. Even so, I don’t think we should assume that “fairness” is synonymous with middle-class women being at liberty to depend on the incomes of their middle-class partners in order to care for their children. That’s just confusing fairness with something that, personally, we might like for ourselves and our children. It’s a shame that we can’t have it but there it is. It’s all a bit of a fudge but if we want things to be better, let’s at least be honest about who it is we’re asking for.

We need to be fairer on working mothers. Image: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.