A government that is made up of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives is an oxymoron. As I wrote close to the election back in May, this time I voted Labour. It was a hard decision, mainly because of my feelings about the Iraq war, but I concluded that it would have probably gone ahead whoever had been in charge. Labour, for all their sins, had brought into being policies that helped lone parent families like mine, including Surestart centres and help with childcare costs through Tax Credits.
Despite my grave misgivings about the coalition, I welcomed the news that single parents with a youngest child of seven were going to be forced to switch from Income Support to Jobseekers’ Allowance. Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants have to actively seek work in any field but if they refuse it, they can lose up to 40% of their benefits. I have volunteered on a project to help lone parents back into work. Yes, these families were only slightly better off financially, but I saw working single parents gain a precious sense of ambition, autonomy, achievement and example. I wondered what jobless parents did all day while their children were at school and couldn’t see a problem with them going out to work.
Since my paper round at 13, I have always worked. I switched from part-time to full-time when I took a year out of university because I was pregnant. I held down my job through difficult circumstances right up until a few weeks before Tom was born. When he was five months old, I resumed education and made sure I was earning as soon as possible after graduation. Therein lies a big difference: I may be deep in debt (and only just beginning to pay off my student loan) but I had an education, something that we all know is about to get a lot harder and a lot more elitist.
Writing my book has stirred memories of the struggle to find postgraduate work as a mother of a one-year-old. Initially, I was open about Tom’s existence because I didn’t want it to be a shock to my potential employers and I (naively) believed that my tenacity made me more employable. My lowest ebb came at an interview for a job for which I was more than adequately qualified, in the industry I know inside out and was told: “You’re perfect, but what do we do if your child is sick and you can’t come into work? We simply can’t afford to take you on.”
Fortunately, I had the skills and qualifications to be able to set up my own business. A year down the line, when the recession began to hit and my business suffered, I applied for a part-time job without mentioning my son and was successful. Tom was at private nursery, a place designed to meet the needs of working parents, that closed at 6pm. When he began school nursery with its mid-afternoon closure, things got complicated. Thankfully, I was able to use my Masters degree (the fees of which I am still paying off) to find myself a rare home-based job.
I believed that the new law would benefit single parents because I thought it would give them the opportunities and career self-worth that are so precious to me. Not everyone has a Masters though, or an undergraduate degree, or even GCSEs. Many who became parents as teenagers will have no academic qualifications or work experience, meaning employment is an enormous hurdle or even an impossibility. Jobs are few and far between, especially those that start at 9.30am and finish at around 2.30pm. I am a great believer in quality childcare being good for a child’s independence and social development, but what if it simply isn’t available? In many small towns and villages, wraparound care doesn’t exist. That is why Gingerbread, the national charity for lone parents thinks that many are being set up to fail. I am aware of the whispers that parents of children approaching seven will produce more babies to eliminate themselves from the ruling and I know that in some cases, it could and probably will happen.
That is why the new coalition government, made partly of Liberal Democrats, will help perpetuate this irritating myth: that single parents are a blight on society, that they are spongers and not workers and that some deliver unwanted children into an impoverished cycle that’s difficult to break. That’s just one of the reasons why I am furious with the Government. That is why I am sorry for thinking the Jobseekers’ move was positive news.
The class divide is alive and thriving, but some working class people need a lot of help to be able to live up to their name.