Con-Dem Nation

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.


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7 responses to “Con-Dem Nation

  1. Ragged Thread Cartographer

    So many thoughts about your post can’t begin to express them. Brilliantly put. Complex and pertinent. Clear, and sad. And not without hope.

  2. shannonmakesstuffup

    New to your blog, but identify with many of your thoughts (I had my own daughter at 18). Regarding the myth that single (and particularly young) parents are a blight on society: I’ve always felt that the main reason so many young single parents struggle is that they are constantly told “you can’t” and “you won’t.” Imagine the difference if instead they heard “you can” and “you will.”

  3. Ragged Thread Cartographer

    To Shannon Yes! Yes! Yes!

  4. maryfclark

    The government is much more of a Con than a Dem one, with all that that implies. Myths abound: Women SHOULD ALL BE MARRIED when the babies come along, they SHOULD NEVER NEED CHILDCARE, because of course they will never want to work, and if they do stay home, THEY WILL BE WELCOMED BACK into the workforce with open arms!!
    I don’t understand what this can possibly accomplish, other than further entrenching the class system.

  5. artistmummy

    Please be mindful that there are many single parents raising disabled children, for whom going out to work is virtually impossible. There are approximately 1.2 million children in the uk living with a disability, a huge proportion of which are being brought up by a single parent. The umbrella term of ‘single parent’ is so much more complex than the comments you make in this post.

    I have to disagree with your comment about ‘welcoming the news that once a child reaches the age of 7 the parent of that child should be forced to switch from Income Support to Jobseekers Allowance’. I am a single parent and when my eldest child turned 7 I had just graduated from university. I had no option but to claim Income Support. My daughter had a total of 10 medical specialists and had at least 2 hospital appointments every week at hospitals all over the North West. In the following 12 months she received 3 different diagnoses. Had I been told at that time to actively seek work or risk losing 40% of my benefit (a large proportion of which was spent on travelling costs to hospital appointments and overnight stays) well, the impact on our lives would have been devestating. It is common for children with developmental disabilities to have ongoing assessments with health professionals for long periods of time before any diagnosis is made and many children don’t receive a diagnosis until they are older. This will have huge implications for those single parents who cannot claim Carers Allowance and are still in receipt of Income Support as they don’t have a diagnosis.

    You also write that you ‘wondered what jobless parents did all day while their children were at school’. Are you aware that many disabled children don’t have any school place? Well at least this was common practice ten years ago. I was truly shocked when finding my family in this situation and when I researched it further found many other families with disabled children who the local Education Authority were failing to educate as they couldn’t meet their needs in a suitable school, and I’m not talking about disruptive children, but children with medical and health problems. Thankfully the Disability Discrimination Act was ammended in 2005 to include education, giving more rights to families in terms of accessing education for their disabled child.

    My daughter is now 19 and I now have a Masters degree and a PGCE, but for most of the last 19 years have been an unpaid carer…..working wasn’t an option as she needed round the clock care and that in itself is equivalent to having two full time jobs. I am now self employed and work part time but it has been a long struggle to be able to use my qualifications. I also have a non-disabled child, and can tell you the experience of parenting him has been a walk in the park compared to parenting my disabled child.

    I would ask anyone commenting on issues such as single parents and work in such a public arena as a blog to please be aware and mindful that not everyone has the same experience as yourself. There are many factors why someone may not be able to work at any given time that are not always apparent on the surface of things.

    • Emily

      Thanks artistmummy, please don’t think I was referring to people in the unimaginably difficult position you were in. Obviously, there is no way someone in your situation could be expected to work. My comments were about those whose children are at full time school, who don’t need the care your daughter did and who are capable of working. And the post is very much about a humbling change of opinion on my part: from my initial applauding of the new laws to realising that finding work is difficult or even impossible for many single parents. I respect anyone in your position and it’s wonderful that you have achieved so much alongside raising your daughter.

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