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Where's the letter from 100 people living in poverty?

The election debate will be dominated by business leaders, bond markets, the Health Service and the public finances. The poor have been written out of the script.

Despite George Osborne’s recent claims, poverty in Britain is growing. Driven by an increasingly fragile jobs market, the rise of insecure work and a more punitive benefits culture, poverty levels have been rising for a generation.  Whatever measure is used, poverty levels are much higher than in the 1970s. They are also close to double the average of other rich countries.

Deprivation levels are higher today than in the late 1990s. Today more households live in a damp home while three times as many cannot afford to heat their home adequately. The numbers who skimp on meals is at a 30 year high. The poorest fifth in Britain are 40% poorer than their counterparts in Germany and 30% poorer than in France.

Britain is an increasingly divided nation. While affluence, comfort and an array of choice is the norm for many sections of society, daily hardship and struggle is the lot of a large and growing cluster of the population.  Close to a third  (more than three out of five them in work) not only lack a range of key, publicly-defined necessities, but suffer multiple, related problems as well, from damaged health, fragile finances and declining work and housing opportunities. On current trends this great divide in living standards is set to worsen over the next five years. Britain is now close to the American model, extreme affluence aside growing and deepening hardship, with the poorest facing a declining prospect of progressing beyond the barest of living standards.  

Growing affluence for most is, remarkably, associated with rising, rather than falling, hardship for a significant and growing minority.  This inverse relationship is being is driven by surging inequality, with the gains from growth over the last thirty bypassing the poorest, colonised instead by the top 1 percent and playing havoc with jobs, pay, housing and life chances for the poorest.

Ministers gloss over the realities of modern life for millions while creating a political culture that is more anti-poor rather than anti-poverty. Despite this, poverty is barely an election issue.  In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher banned her cabinet and civil servants from using the ‘P` word.  Despite Michael Gove’s call on his party to become ‘warriors against the dispossessed`, the poor are again being written out of the political script.

In 2010, all the parties signed up to the 2010 Child Poverty Act, with its legal obligation to cutting poverty levels by 2020.  Yet in Government the coalition parties have simply ignored the Act and tried to redefine poverty levels downwards while dismissing rising deprivation as self-inflicted.

After the war, economic and social policy was guided by the ‘distribution question’. Yet the once central question of how we divide the cake – dismissed as ‘poisonous’ by one leading pro-market thinker  -  has simply been eliminated from economic thinking.  Today there is plenty of talk about inequality, but neither of the major parties has a clear strategy for closing the gap and reversing the rising poverty tide. Despite Gove’s call, the Conservatives promise a further weakening of Britain’s increasingly patchy safety net. Labour will slow the pace of retrenchment in welfare spending while offering a modest increase in the minimum wage and a bit more tax on the rich. Over the next five years, the existing anti-poor and pro-rich social and economic system is thus set to remain intact, still programmed to steer more and more of the cake to the wealthy few

If we are to reverse the rising poverty tide, we need a new direction, one that steers more of the cake to profits and less to wages, one that ends the culture of entitlement still at work in the City and company boardrooms and that tackles the issue of the over-concentration of private ownership in the UK. This means a much more direct challenge to the entrenched corporate and financial vested interests that continue to dictate large chunks of economic policy, while diminishing wider life chances.  

Poverty and inequality are two of the most urgent issues of the day. Yet, in today’s climate of political inertia, with its bias to the status quo and its fear of radical change, the kind of policies that would make a real difference are not even part of the election debate. Until that inertia is challenged, and the talk turned to action, poverty and inequality will continue to intensify.

Stewart Lansley is the author (with Joanna Mack) of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Poverty, Oneworld.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

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