The Coalition is signalling it believes there is nothing to gain from women bringing up their own children
Once upon a time, when local radio phone-ins were the giddy height of Warholian fame, female callers were wont to utter the dread, self-deprecating phrase “I’m just a housewife” in apologetic tones. The implication that child‑rearing was inferior to, and less onerous than, “proper” work seems vaguely shocking now. To women, at any rate, who know the truth of it.
Under this Government, however, we appear to be going back to the proverbial future, and a situation in which stay-at-home motherhood is viewed in distinctly pejorative terms by politicians. How else to explain the withdrawal of universal child benefit (we appreciate your efforts raising the next generation) and the promise, instead, of child care tax breaks (hand over that baby to the teenager with the NVQ, or you’re getting nada, lady).
First (Other OTC: FSTC - news) , let’s do the math, as the Americans would say, clinging to the fiscal cliff by a tuft of kidney vetch. I used to think childbirth was a bloody mess until this egregiously ill-conceived, grossly flawed policy was dragged out of the Cabinet with forceps, to the horror of onlookers. Mrs, now Baroness, Thatcher may have been a milk snatcher but she would have annihilated any minister who proposed such a preposterously embarrassingly innumerate reform that removes all or some child benefit from families where one parent earns more than £50,000, while two parents earning £49,000 each still receive it. Ker-ching!
How David Cameron can describe such a glaring anomaly as “fundamentally fair” is nonsensical. As a result, we’re not all in this together far from it. Even those who concede they can do without child benefit are reluctant to do so when the new rules are so farcical.
A middle management friend of mine who will be losing child benefit for her three sons because she earns just over the limit is furious, not least because she has colleagues with a high joint income who won’t lose theirs. “This is gesture politics and the gesture in question is two fingers up to women who are already juggling the demands of family and work,” she says.
“Yes, I can live without child benefit, but I really resent having to forgo it, because it’s a way of getting back some of the money I pay in taxes in a tacit acknowledgement that having children is a good thing for society not least because someone has to pay for our pensions.”
Her hostility is echoed by that bellwether of maternal feeling, Mumsnet, currently peppered with comments from a contributor going by the name of ihategeorgeosborne. “No one on Mumsnet is arguing that those on very high incomes should be entitled to benefits, but many Mumsnet users are angry with the way the changes to the system have been implemented,” says Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts.
“It’s obviously unfair that families with a household income of £50,000 face a cut, while some households with a combined income of £99,999 don’t. And targeting a cut like this at families with children rather than, for example, adjusting the higher-rate tax threshold across the board flies in the face of the Government’s stated aim of being family‑friendly.”
The not-so-subliminal message for those in the squeezed middle is that motherhood per se is not worth supporting, even to the modest tune of £20.30 a week. But if we scuttle back to paid employment sharpish (oops, mind the episiotomy!) we’ll get a few extra quid towards the eye-watering cost of a nursery place.
It would be fatuous to suggest that women will be put off motherhood by the removal of child benefit to middle earners. But by ending the universality of these payments, the Coalition is signalling that the state believes there is nothing to gain from these women making sacrifices to bring up their own children, imparting their own values and attitudes rather than dispatching them to whichever of the assorted child care “settings” they can afford.
During last year’s US elections, Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen cattily remarked that the Republican presidential candidate’s wife, Ann Romney, who brought up the couple’s five sons, had never worked “a day in her life”. After an icy statement from Michelle Obama that “All women deserve respect”, she backtracked.
In the US, full-time motherhood is a political issue. In European countries including France, Germany and Italy, financial incentives have been used to encourage women to have larger families: generous maternity leave, “baby bonuses” and reduced travel costs what my colleague Boris Johnson so delicately referred to this week as a “Mussolini-like reward for procreation”.
Boris has celebrated the withdrawal of across-the-board child benefit with crushing de haut en bas insensitivity but, actually, I’d like to state for the record that most of us don’t fritter our child benefit away on fondues in Verbier. I know exactly where my £134 a month went straight into the savings accounts I set up for my two children.
I liked to think that by investing in their futures, I was investing in society. But, you know, even if I had chosen to spend it on mochachinos and organic toddler snacks on my days off, that would have been OK too, on the happy mother, happy child principle.
Like a great many other mothers, I work because I have to and because I want to. Like a great many other mothers, I returned to work three months after the birth of my second child with a heavy heart, casting an envious eye at mum chums who could afford to take a year off, but also conscious of the price to be paid. The middle-class mothers I know who stay at home have done so at great financial sacrifice, but had they found part-time jobs that reflected their professional standing, they wouldn’t have hesitated to return to work.
But I digress; in 2011, a Government-backed paper, researched by University College London, revealed that whereas in 1980 two thirds of mothers stayed at home, 30 years on three quarters of middle-class mothers returned to work. In areas of social deprivation, working mothers are, predictably, a minority. But in high net worth households there are fewer working mothers than in middle-income homes; a reflection of the fact that staying at home is an index of wealth and status.
Does that mean I must urge my daughters to bag a banker (I believe they have crept back on to the market after their requisite period of brand detoxification) when they come of age? Quite possibly, although an oligarch might be a better long-term bet.
This gerrymandering of child benefit guidelines is “nudge politics” at its most pointy-elbowed; no one is actually wheeling us from labour ward to meeting room, but we’re all being steered, by degrees, in that direction. It’s all whittling away at the welfare state, which dismays me on many levels not least because the chances are that on the phone-ins of the future anyone who describes themselves as “just a housewife” will be dialling from Millionaires' Row.