A third source to boost living standards: the family

Policymakers should seek to mitigate the barriers to the giving and receiving of financial and practical support between family members.

Alongside tackling the deficit, the government‘s priority is now tackling another major economic problem: the rising cost of living, caused by a mix of stagnant wages, a real terms reduction in benefits, and inflation. But with public spending constrained and economic growth still fragile, policymakers need to think creatively about solutions beyond the traditional reliance on the state or the market to help struggling families.

A recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group and Joseph Rowntree Foundation demonstrates the scale of the problem for families on modest incomes: over the past year the average cost of raising children has risen by 4% for those also paying for childcare. 

To boost family incomes, policymakers tend to fixate on two levers: the state or the market. Either government, through increased cash transfers or reduced taxation, or businesses, through increased wages, are called upon to do more. Under the last Labour government, cash transfers from the state to low-income families increased substantially with some notable successes, such as the reduction in the number of children living in poverty. The coalition government has prioritised reducing income tax. Recent emphasis has shifted to the role employers can play in boosting income: there is campaigning from across the main political parties to increase the minimum wage and spread the voluntary living wage to more employers.

The state and market should do more to help alleviate poverty. But the current economic conditions limit their reach. So it is also worth exploring how a third major resource can help improve family incomes: a person’s wider family.

Already, a significant minority of households receive regular financial support from their wider family, predominantly their parents. It is estimated that about 1 in 6 households regularly receive financial help from their parents with the average received in one year about £1,400. The national annual flow of such transfers is estimated to be about £1.2bn. But this undervalues the scale of transfers taking place: it misses out those who receive money through inheritance, which is estimated to be about £30bn a year.

Forthcoming research from the Social Market Foundation found that many on the lowest incomes, especially those experiencing circumstantial poverty due to unemployment or divorce, receive significant financial support from their parents, often worth thousands of pounds. And in-kind support such as the provision of childcare and shopping is also common and saves households significant amounts of money.

The family, then, is often a major but hidden form of welfare. Its impact can be quite remarkable. There can be a considerable improvement in living standards of low income families who receive support from parents: they are better able to work or train, and afford a wider range of goods from children’s clothes to holidays.

Policymakers should seek how to mitigate some of the barriers to the giving and receiving of financial and practical support between family members. Obviously, the lack of familial exchange may be explained by geographical or emotional distance between relatives. But there are other barriers such as money and time: for example, especially with cultural and governmental expectations to work for longer in older age, grandparents will have less time in the week to provide support.

Employment for older people could be more flexible. Since the late 1980s, DIY retailer B&Q has encouraged older workers, with a quarter of its workforce now over the age of 50, by ensuring flexible working – including for caring responsibilities – is part of the company culture. Maybe this could be nudged along by making parental leave, especially parents’ unpaid entitlement, transferable to grandparents if unused?

To tackle the financial constraints some families face, maybe tax efficient, high-interest multigenerational family trusts could be established to encourage low-income families to build up a pot of money to help different generations in testing times?

This year’s Budget – with announcements to help families with childcare, petrol and housing costs – showed that the government is focussing on measures to boost living standards for those on modest incomes. But policymakers will need to think creatively and draw on multiple sources: the state and the market, yes, but also the family.   

About 1 in 6 households regularly receive financial help from their parents with the average received in one year about £1,400. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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