I suppose that by now, everyone in Australia has probably come across some version of the latest iteration of the hatin’-on-teen-mums discourse, which comes up with frightening regularity. This version of course, is part of the ‘tough love’ strategy being used by the Goverment, allegedly to get us back to surplus. There’s an extraordinary array of things to be said about this, but I just want to underline a few.
A number of people have reacted badly to Gillard’s proposal. A number of welfare groups have pointed out that threatening to take away someone’s welfare payment if they don’t adhere to your rules is not supportive, it’s exacerbating the vulnerability of an already-vulnerable group of people (an argument which can be made for the entirety of our Centrelink system). A quick summary: now, you need to attend Centrelink meetings once your child is 6 months old, and you must return to education and training once your child is one year old, or risk losing your payments; this is a massive change from what was once a requirement that you fulfill some kind of ‘activity’ once your child turned 6 (and thus was in school). The ALP coverage emphasises some support aspects – covering child care costs and creating playgroups for new parents, both of which are useful initiatives, but as some have pointed out, equipping schools to support mothers is actually very important. But in the end, what concerns me is that this is being spun as ‘tough love’, and it’s designed for less cost to the taxpayer, and a reduction in costs, and in this context, it’s not surprising that the government have targeted young mothers. It was about picking an already-hated group, so people could get busy slut-shaming and talking about the awful people that teen mothers supposedly are, instead of shaming a government that is supposed to be even vaguely left of Howard. It’s also worth noting that teen mums are so marginalised that articulating resistance is really extraordinarily hard. Nothing like a group who can’t say anything back to build your policies around!
The fact that young women disproportionately bear the responsibility for teen pregnancies is evidenced in the extraordinary levels of hatred and disgust leveled at them in numerous depressing comment threads (and, for e.g., the poll, which I know is on the heraldsun website and thus is carefully designed to make me hate the world, which, when I looked at it today, had 520 people out of 600 thinking the ‘crackdown’ was a ‘good thing‘) and news items or posts. The injustice of the double standard is one thing. But this anger and vitriol also betrays an anger towards the demand that caring for children count as labour. The anger accuses young women of being ‘lazy,’ or ‘irresponsible,’ or ‘just out for the money,’ and erases the extraordinary amount of often unsupported work that mothers do, and which young single mums often wind up having to do on their own (or occasionally with the support of family, friends, or – astonishingly – the father). Raising kids is not a picnic, and it’s also a vital part of the work done in our society, as blue milk reminded us with her link to Nancy Folbre, over here; if you haven’t watched the video yet, I highly recommend it, and if you can’t, blue milk offers a summary here. To treat mothers as mere drains on society is a massive injustice, in many ways, and to make teen mums try to balance the demands of caring for children with education and work, a balance that much older women with a thousand and one more resources (including the newly-introduced mat leave!) often struggle to maintain, is just an astonishing injustice. And of course the privileging of a really particular Western, middle-class ideal of family, of motherhood, of child care and work that informs this is just egregious. ‘Work with Dignity,’ Gillard keeps telling us, but I get the feeling here that what she’s really saying is ‘work for dignity, endlessly, because we aren’t going to let you have it for nothing, and certainly not if you behave like that.‘ And womenfolk, this bizarre pursuit of surplus might be earned off your back, but we don’t really even care to find out if that’s the case anymore, as Rhonda Sharp points out here.
Those of you who managed to trawl through my meandery comment on the Feminism FOR REAL thread will know that I’m thinking a lot about individualism and structural inequalities. While I was reading up around this topic, I found a really interesting post by John Falzon of St Vinnies, which makes reasonably accessible some of the more academic debates about neoliberalism that are feeding into this interest, and discusses them in the context of this latest round of welfare reform. Perhaps one of the key concepts here is responsibilisation, whereby individuals are made responsible for what is thereby characterised as their own dysfunction. That dysfunction becomes not about the gender inequality that continues to devalue women’s work. It’s not about the lack of opportunities and support that those in poverty face. It’s not about the lack of access to health care, child care, contraception, reasonably-priced housing and good food. It’s certainly not about a society where poverty is what guarantees profit. It’s apparently about this horrible, irresponsible little slut who made some poor boy knock her up because she wanted to play xbox all day and get free money (that is, yes, a conglomeration of bits from various comment threads. Don’t need to make up this kind of hate!) By telling us these nightmare stories about individual women, the injustices of neoliberalism get obscured, and those who actually could do something about these kinds of issues – the government – get to shrug their shoulders and raise their empty hands and say ‘well, we tried to give them dignity, we really did, but there’s just no helping some people.’ But more than this, when the government does do something, the ‘individual dysfunction’ of teen mothers becomes the focus of debate and comment, and a reason to not offer support, to be punitive and to characterise them as drains on the social body.