Every couple of months or so, there is some new report about how terrible childhood is today and and how it is all the fault of single mothers.
The latest one was a in report last week entitled the Good Childhood Inquiry conducted by the Children's Society, who are closely allied to the Church of England. This was misrepresented in the press as a doom and gloom report advocating traditional family values. It's actually not nearly so bad, they looked a wide range of issues and made a great number of recommendations to government, but it did produce the following statistic which was repeated in every news story about it
Children, whose parents separate are 50% more likely to fail at school, suffer behavioural difficulties, anxiety or depression.Although this wasn't said in the report, this statistic was used elsewhere, as statistics like it always are, to argue that.
- A masculine parent is so important that without one living in the same house, a child is doomed.
- The marriage of one's parents is vital for a happy and healthy childhood or
- We should readopt traditional family values – whatever the heck they are - for the good of the nation's children.
So it is not ideal, but it happens and always has. And the reasons that it is a problem in our society at this moment in time are not to do with the morality of divorce, premarital sex or anything like that. This is mostly to do with poverty.
Most single-parents are women. Not all, but most, and this is important. Apart from anything else it enables various stereotypes about women using their magical eyelash-fluttering child-bearing ability to exploit either the state or men for financial gain. The fact that for every single mother there is a father who took part in the baby-making activity (I believe that letters to the stork still require a joint signature) is generally neglected.
For not-unrelated cultural reasons, women earn on average just three quarters what men do. So your Mum and Dad couple working the same hours will be typically two and a third times better off than Mum as the sole provider. Out of which must come full rent, utilities and so on.
Single mothers are at a particular disadvantage among female workers. The demands of childcare mean that they are more likely to be working part-time or low paid flexible work, and they are going to be considered unreliable by potential employees. For many single-mothers of young children, it is not worth working – not because state benefits keep these families in the lap of luxury, but because childcare provision and working conditions in the UK are not oriented towards family life.
Fathers can provide, but the absent father's life is not a particularly cheap. Unless Dad is a high-earner, he is unlikely to be able to afford to contribute much towards two lots of rents or mortgages, utilities and so on. As a weekend-parent, Dad is likely to feel under particular pressure to provide treats and entertainment, which are also costly - his pot is unlikely to be overflowing. Plus, according to the Children's Society report 28% of children had no contact with their father three years after their parents' separation. Some men do struggle for access, family law is often applied in a sexist way in favour of mothers, but no contact at all is abandonment.
If there is money, everything is different. But poverty is a major factor in initial family breakdown, so poorer people are more likely to be in these circumstances to begin with.
Anyway, your average single-parent is a woman who is financially hard up. This dictates a hell of a lot about her life and the lives of her children.
Money dictates where she can live. If she is on benefits or mode average wages, she is likely to live in cheap rented accommodation or social housing. Such housing clusters poorer people together. Social housing, as it is, has a whole heap of social and pscyhological issues for the tenants – something Margaret Thatcher realised, but attempted to resolve by selling most of it off. This means that social housing is more stigmatised and isolated than ever. Some of it is very good, but some families find themselves forced by circumstances into run-down estates or tower blocks which are bad environments for all sorts of obvious reasons to do with safe places to play, vulnerability to crime and criminal influence and adult role models. A mother who doesn't work is not necessarily a bad example, but if all one's adult friends and neighbours don't work either, that's a problem.
Money dictates what a mother can do. We had a patch when we were kids – the last recession – where my family were broke, Dad was out of work and the house was on the verge of repossession. When I got ten pound note for Christmas, I swapped it for the fiver in my mother's purse. We had no car, the buses were expensive, but we all had second-hand bikes. So we used to cycle all over the town and its outskirts, to free museums, the library, parks, to visit family member and so on. If we didn't have somewhere safe to keep our bikes, or even if the roads in the town were as busy as they are now, our world would have been much much smaller.
There are a lot of things you can do for free, but even where we lived in Ipswich, the library was a good three-quarters of an hour's walk away. The museum would have been a day's hike (although it did have a giraffe so it was worth it). But then when Dad got a job and we eventually had a car, we could go to castles, the seaside, to forests and nature reserves – not expensive outings, we always took our own food, but the ability to move about really matters to one's quality of life.
Money dictates what kinds of relationships she can have. Parenthood complicates romantic relationships as it is, but poverty complicates it even more. Women's increasing financial independence has had huge implications in terms of equality and physical safety within live-in relationships. When women have the economic power to leave and live comfortably alone, they are generally treated better – not beaten up so often, not expected to play a deferential role and so on.
A single-parent on income-related benefits loses a massive chunk of her money as soon as a chap moves in. She and her children then become dependent on his income, overnight. He cannot merely contribute towards the rent; he must either pay it all or not live there at all. And this power-dynamic makes women and their children vulnerable to various shades of exploitation. The more sensible solution to is to keep the relationship casual or smuggle the chap in after dark each night. This can be extremely uncomfortable for two people in love who want to make a life together, to say nothing of the children. Like I say, things were complicated enough.
So single-mothers in poverty are more likely to have messy relationships if they have any romantic relationships at all – and I'm sure it is good for one's parents to have romantic relationships, just like other grown-ups. Money makes all the difference. If a single-mother has a good independent income, romance can progress at a natural pace. In poverty, she must either recognise the disincentives to committed relationships or leave herself vulnerable to exploitation.
The disadvantages experienced by children in single-parent households have nothing to do with any traditional family structure having been an ideal. We have always had odd-shaped families, relationships have always broken down and people have always died prematurely, but for most of human history, we have not placed the entire responsibility for a child's upbringing on two biological parents. We have also accepted that looking after the wee buggers is a valuable contribution to the group as a whole. Reproduction is by no means an altruistic act, but we have made it very much more selfish than it ought to be.
We need to improve education so that both men and women take their reproductive responsibilities very seriously from the start. We need to make sure that already poor young women have more appealing options than having babies straight out of school – not to reignite the hypocritical stigma of the unmarried mother. Gender equality makes relationships happier and longer lasting and makes things far more manageable when they don't work out.
But we also need more flexible working conditions for men and women, better public transport and a more imaginative wellfare state (not necessarily a more generous one) – disabled adults could use all this too, by the way, we all do, but the kids are kind of important.