Sunday, April 07, 2013

Domestic Violence & The Welfare State

It's one of the most cynical propaganda moves this government has taken, to use a bizarre crime that lead to the deaths of six children to justify cutting the incomes of the poor.  Mick Philpott accidentally killed six of his seventeen children whilst attempting to frame his ex-girlfriend for arson, with the help of his abused wife and their male lover.

This crime is about domestic violence. Philpott was violent and controlling towards the women and children in his life and the arson was part of this. The judge summed this up brilliantly and Polly Neale from Women's Aid wrote about the absence of "domestic violence" in the media discussion.

There is, in fact, a link between the welfare state and the deaths of the Philpott children.  Although domestic violence can effect anyone, from any walk of life, people in poverty are more likely to experience domestic abuse.

Sometimes, this is explained as if being poor adds more pressure on relationships (it certainly does) and this pressure leads to violence.  This is a tragic oversimplification. People don't become violent when they have less money. What poverty does is makes people more vulnerable to being abused and abusers - whatever their income or class background - prey on the vulnerable.

If we really cared to, there are various ways in which this problem could be addressed:

1. The benefits system is likely to make a person more vulnerable to control and manipulation.

Given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer effectively argued that Philpott's children should not exist, it should be no surprise that poverty and the welfare system can easily wreck a person's self-esteem. It can often feel that your money is not really your own, that you are a burden on others, that you are failing to make a contribution. You are surrounded by materialist images of happiness which are entirely unattainable. If you are working, you are likely to be in unstable, insecure employment. If you are not working, you may be locked in an increasingly desperate hunt for work, taking rejection after rejection. If you unable to work through ill health, caring responsibilities or other circumstances, then it can feel like your life has come to a dead end, that you have failed as a person, as a partner, as a parent.

Much of this is instantly solved with a higher minimum wage.  Most benefits claimants below retirement age are in work - as both Mick Philpott's partners were - but not earning enough to live on. As Louise McCudden writes, "We shouldn’t be ashamed of having a welfare state but we should be more ashamed of what it represents. The amount we spend on benefits is a measure of how much poverty and inequality we are, as a society, prepared to tolerate."

Even when it is providing an adequate income, the benefits agency treats people badly. The language letters and agency workers use is often accusatory, untrusting; they've got their eye on you. You are constantly asked to justify yourself, your limitations and, often enough, made to argue with decision-makers who say that you (your family, friends and even your doctors) are being dishonest.

The language the government and media use about benefits claimants - all of us - is even worse. Is there any other group of people in our society where a newspaper could print a photograph of six children, victims of arson, with the headline describing them as a "Vile Product" of anything?

Groups like young single mothers have been stained by this rhetoric for years - much longer than the current more widespread assault on those who need state help to live.  Impoverished single women with babies, especially if they are (or could pass for) teenagers have long been condemned as roundabout prostitutes; girls who, despite their extreme youth and vulnerability, cynically set out to have unprotected sex in order to have a meal-ticket child that they will treat like a shiny new doll.  Single mothers and their children are particularly vulnerable to abuse, not because these women are feckless and promiscuous and let any man into their homes, but because years of poor treatment, media rhetoric and the judgement of their neighbours has made them feel pretty rotten about themselves.

And so when someone is nice to you, says they love you despite all this, but occasionally hits you and uses the same derogatory language as our leading politicians...

2. Factors which make a person vulnerable to domestic violence also make them more likely to be poor. 

Disabled people, including those with mental ill health, single parents, adults who have grown up in the care system, adults who were abused as children, trans people, immigrants, people who have experienced massive disruption in their lives such as serious illness, injury, bereavement or desertion are all more vulnerable to domestic abuse regardless of their financial situation. But they are also much more likely to be poor, to have low or unstable incomes or to be unable to work or find work.

This doesn't happen by accident.  This is caused by inequality, prejudice and discrimination within our society. There will always be richer folk and poorer folk, always be folk who lack confidence and are more easily taken advantage of.  But it is completely unnecessary that disadvantage and vulnerability should be so often packaged together like this, that superficial factors about a person's identity should make it possible to predict one's chances of falling victim to a particular kind of life-altering violent crime.

3. Our welfare system takes an all or nothing approach to live-in romantic relationships.

If you share a bed with someone on a regular basis and need to claim an income-related benefit, you will be considered living together as if married. You will also be treated as if you share financial responsibility for any children you have. If one of you is earning, that could mean the other person is no longer entitled to financial support, or has that financial support greatly reduced. This occurs regardless of the nature of your relationship, the commitment you have, the things you agree to between yourselves.

Single claimants who live in shared houses, especially with housemates of other genders, frequently have to prove that they are not, in fact romantically partnered.  Couples who are getting together must inform the benefits agencies as soon as they begin to live together, as if there is a single magic cut-off point between complete independence and complete interdependence.

This causes all manner of problems, but it makes people significantly more vulnerable to domestic abuse in various ways:
  • It causes victims to be financially dependent on their abusers.
  • It causes abusers to be financially dependent on their victims. This does not necessarily put victims in a position of power, especially when a situation of financial dependence hasn't been chosen by either party. 
  • It causes victims and abusers to be bound together in any situation of fraud. An abuser may outright refuse to be honest about her income, she may be working for cash that she keeps for herself, or have money stashed away that only she may access. A victim may be in a position where he must either commit fraud or have no money to pay the rent.
  • It complicates step-parenting relationships.  A parent's partner is condemned to be either completely informal or at least partly financially responsible for a child, this relationship determined by the state as opposed to anybody's feelings or level of commitment.
  • It fosters artificial progressions within a relationship. Abusive relationships tend to progress very quickly as abusers try to achieve the maximum amount of control over their victims as soon as possible; moving in together, becoming financially entangled, getting pregnant and so forth. The black and white model forced upon the relationships of benefits claimants make this much easier; there's little room for gradually getting together and experimenting with living arrangements.
  • It isolates people in their relationships. Because financial dependency kicks into place the moment a couple moves in together, it places pressure on claimants to keep their relationships quiet or even secret - sneaking a partner out the back door in the morning - until the couple has come to a position where they are happy to live together permanently and become financially intertwined. In some cases, if an abuser insists on moving in but refuses to contribute financially, a victim may be forced into outright lies about their relationship, making it extremely difficult to seek help.  Abusers thrive on such isolation. 
All this makes people on benefits and their families much more vulnerable to abuse. It makes children more vulnerable to abuse. This is another major factor effecting the statistics which suggest less favorable outcomes of the children of single parents.

It is tricky to work out how this is solved - clearly, it is much cheaper for two people to live together as a family unit than to live apart and an unemployed person with a working partner isn't so badly off. However, a situation of instant and total dependence should and could be avoided. For example, it should never be the case that a disabled person, twice as vulnerable to domestic violence as a non-disabled person, should become completely dependent on a partner if they cannot work, as many are today.

4. In the absence of talent or privilege, abusers are often unemployable. 

Abusers tend to be narcissists, angry at a world which will never treat them with due deference, gratitude and material rewards appropriate to their greatness. There are some very rich and powerful narcissists about, but they have been very lucky, talented in a particular way or born into wealth and privilege. Even then, they will never quite get the treatment they believe they deserve, and tend to fly off the handle if a partner, child, employee or populus doesn't behave exactly as they'd wish.

Lower down the social scale, narcissism is a bigger problem for the individual - after all, they deserve to be wealthy, successful and admired, so something's gone wrong if they're not (and that has to be somebody's fault). It's hard to hold down a normal job because it's beneath them, their colleagues and bosses are all idiots, everyone they deal with is stupid and weak. They are not ordinary people with ordinary problems; they are the smartest, wisest, most generous people in the world, so their potential is completely wasted if they are not in charge, not telling everyone how things should be done.

Mick Philpott was able to make himself a little kingdom to rule over; so many children, multiple partners whose lives he micromanaged, isolated from the rest of the world - in part, by their fame as a huge polyamorous family living in a council house (described as workless, even though it was only the patriarch who didn't work). But although the sheer size of his family is extraordinary, it's not an extraordinary tactic - it is amazing to me that anyone could assume he wanted more children in order to claim more benefits (You can't make a profit out of having babies for benefits). He simply wanted to control his women and expand his dominion.

We all know poor but abusive people who can comfortably consider themselves Caesar in their own homes, and maybe one other safe environment; the local pub, a church, an on-line forum - places where their charm works well enough and, for whatever reason, expectations of decent behaviour and competence are low.

And that's not the fault of systems, only the fault of society which allows such people to operate, which prefers to talk about a man's unemployment rather than his domestic violence when it is his domestic violence which has killed six children. A society which condemns an entire family - not just innocent children but innocent dead children - because of the unemployment of the man who happens to be in charge. A society where many people seem to think that those kids died because of the social class they were born into as opposed to an act of violent revenge perpetrated by their abusive father.

No comments: