Neoliberal welfare and gender inequality

Rosie the Riveter with a babyI 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.

Categories: economics, gender & feminism, parenting, social justice, work and family

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17 replies

  1. Just wanted to say thanks for the great post!

  2. Thanks, FMark! I’ve been having blog angst a bit of late, so it’s nice to hear 🙂

  3. Well said! I’d love to see “education bonuses” for young parents going back to school to cover the extra costs, and organising child care and school support for them. But no, that’s not making them be “responsible”. Being the primary carer for a young child in a society that considers you scum for doing so (or for not doing so to their exact and changing specifications!) is pretty much the definition of responsible!

  4. I can’t really add much to what you’re saying here, but I agree completely.
    Teen motherhood would cease to be a “problem” if teen mothers were treated with respect — which includes ensuring that they have the resources that they need to parent.

  5. Seconding what FMark said. In Britain, young single mothers rapidly become the bane of society whenever the Conservatives get in (along with anyone with an illness or disability that’s not visually obvious).

  6. My immediate thought with regards to this scheme is that it’s hardly consistent with encouraging participants to continue breastfeeding (as per WHO guidelines). What vulnerable person is going to argue when told they “can’t do that in here” by someone who is perceived as being in control of their access to support?

  7. Freya, I think you’re absolutely right. The accounts of the proposals that I’ve seen have talked about putting babies into child care – and Helen, the point about how they’re going to support child care centres to enable that many more kids to attend is really valuable.
    In fact, here’s an observation that has been troubling me for a little while. Kate Ellis here writes “Today the Prime Minister and I had the opportunity to share a cup of coffee with some hard working and passionate young mum’s who are working towards their post-school qualifications. Several, I was pleased to hear are training to be child care workers. ” The inclusion of women in the workforce can be great, but the inclusion of women in ‘women’s work’ still tends to be massively underpaid, and child care is one of those areas. It’s also a heavily casualised setting, making reliable income even more difficult to access.

  8. I disagree with much of this – although not your points on the reporting and the comments on the reporting – but I have already made my points on the otterday thread.
    I just wanted to add one thing

    This version of course, is part of the ‘tough love’ strategy being used by the Goverment, allegedly to get us back to surplus

    Nowhere has this been presented as part of the “to get us back to surplus” package. It is being presented as a *cost* to the budget, not a way to try to save money, and as one of the programs that needs to happen *despite* the tough fiscal position, not because of it.

  9. I wonder what would happen if we encouraged the young fathers to participate in child care?
    I am stating the obvious, but I think it is hugely unfair that fathers aren’t even mentioned in these conversations, and the whole burden of responsibility is always on women. It takes two people to make a baby.
    Also – if we’re going to force people to put their children in child care, there really needs to be better child care options available.

  10. It has been presented that way, Rebekka, and quite a bit, but the government’s press releases and blog posts etc, you’re right, really don’t characterise it that way; it’s mostly a media thing. Which is important to ask questions about, I think. I have to say, though, I haven’t really seen it characterised as a cost. The focus seems to be on ‘discipline’ and ‘everyone who can work should work’ etc, which may not explicitly be about getting back to surplus, but is not exactly situating young mothers as contributing… but you may have sources I haven’t encountered, of course!

  11. @Alien Tea It’s one of the more frustrating parts of this whole thing, I think! I was tempted to make the whole post about that, actually ;-P

  12. I don’t particularly want to come to verbal blows over this Rebekka, but I’m not sure what exactly the ‘much’ is that you disagree with since WP was getting a conversation started on the ‘responsibilisation stuff’ which seems to me, as a formerly teenaged single mum a pretty important (and unusually respectful) discussion around the way teenaged mums and other vulnerable people in society are treated, both dismissing what they do as ‘nothing’ and making them ‘responsible’ for their own suffering and oppression.
    On the other thread you posited a choice between this plan and teen parents staying on welfare, being poor and not getting an education:
    “Surely this is a better plan than leaving them on welfare and having their kids grow up in poverty, with a parent who hasn’t had the opportunity for an education or to get a decent job?”
    That to me is a false dichotomy and quite an insulting one as someone who has fought extremely hard to raise a child to believe he can do anything he wants, to show him that where you are in life doesn’t have to determine where you end up, who has fought for an education and a good life. Basically though no matter how hard I fight it’s not good enough (I’m not suggesting for a second it’s not good enough for you – you’ve never been disrespectful to me about this stuff). What I mean is that others will be, and have been very contemptuous: How DARE you take your time to get a double degree? How DARE you continue to receive a small subsidy in parenting payment while you work? And it’s that damned if you do, damned if you don’t stuff: if I dropped out and worked at KMart again (all that was open to me at the beginning) I’d be an example of the ‘teenaged mum, look at what happens, kids in poverty’ stuff. If I refuse to and I fight for an education I’m ‘taking the system for a ride’. Again, not putting this stuff on to you. Just saying that I find the ‘either/or’ choice you presented pretty insulting given the odds that I had to fight to refuse those choices. So in many senses I think we are on the same page: help to increase the odds of success in education for people in a tough spot is good. Except that I think that I get to object to the false dichotomies (which I’ll go into below) or waiving away the threats to cut off payments as a ‘hoop’.
    It is not a choice between this plan or poverty for the kids. I’d like to see the stats on teen parents and what they do after their pregnancy: to my mind if they aren’t looking for opportunities for education and jobs, then either they are wholly focussed on parenting for a few years, or there’s something more systemic going on. Are there jobs in the area? How high is the general unemployment rate? Are they being supported properly? Where’s the money for mental health counseling (voluntary and with a counselor of their choice) for teen (and other) single parents? That focuses on what that particular persons strengths and weaknesses are, how they can be supported to dream a better future for themselves and their child? Why isn’t that a solution rather than ‘This is what you will do and if you don’t you will have no payments which will result in you *having* to leave your child in childcare to go work some shitty job’.
    I agree that increased chances are good, and I’m not against the plan per se and neither does WP seem to be. But we should be able to talk about it and all of the issues around it without concerns being shut down as extraneous.
    It isn’t a choice between one (the pilot program) or the other (kids growing up in poverty) because there already were measures to assist with eduction: the Pensioner Education Supplement, the Education Entry Payment and I now forget the name, but a scheme to reduce the amount of childcare payment payable when it was for study or work; and there are other solutions, other ways of formatting solutions. I’m not going to be backed into a corner of saying those things on offer now are *sufficient* and nothing more is necessary but I do think it’s interesting that *not* all welfare in fact has hoops, or at least not hoops that threaten your livelihood. And since I’m the one who’s raised a child on welfare, though the amount has decreased as time has gone on, I’m the one who knows the unholy terror of “Do it or we cut your payments”and I think me raising the fact that that ‘hoop’ is particularly punitive maybe ought to be heard properly rather than it being dismissed as overplayed by the media, or it being presented as a necessary evil since what’s the alternative? Poverty and no education? Because unless you’ve done it yourself I really don’t think you can have any idea of the terror of it all.

  13. Slightly on topic, regarding the value of caring work:

    Women paid less, tribunal finds
    A historic decision on equal pay for tens of thousands of workers in the non-government community sector has ruled that gender has played an “important” role in the low wages that the mostly female workforce receives.
    But the 121-page decision by the full bench of Fair Work Australia, handed down at midday, has called for further submissions on how much extra pay the 150,000 strong workforce should receive.
    In a victory for the Australian Services Union, the workplace tribunal ruled that for employees in the sector, “there is not equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal or comparable value by comparison with workers in state and local government employment”.
    ”We consider gender has been important in creating the gap between pay in the SACS (social and community services) industry and pay in comparable state and local government employment.”
    The case is regarded as the most important equal pay push for almost four decades and the Fair Work laws have made it easier for unions to make claims.
    Instead of having to prove discrimination, as had been the case, the laws allow cases to be made around the principle of “comparable value”.
    Before the decision had been made Prime Minister Julia Gillard said earlier today that the case was only possible as the Government had got rid of WorkChoices. “There was no effective way under Work Choices for people whose occupations had been historically undervalued, dismissed as women’s work, to get anything that looked like pay equity,” she said.

  14. FMark, that was all over my facebook wall this morning 🙂 Great news, I have to say! I’m trying to track down who precisely counts under the SACS classification, especially in terms of child care. But even if child care work is not included under the category of SACS, this is a really great precedent to take advantage of!

  15. fp, what I disagree with here – as I did elsewhere – is basically this:

    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

    The government is *not* spinning this as tough love – that’s the media. The government – fortunately for democracy- can not control how the media report what they say. I don’t agree for a second that there was any deliberate attempt to target an already-hated group as WP suggests.
    The final para, too, I vehemently disagree with. Once again, the media reporting, the comments on websites and the government’s or the PM’s intent are not the same thing.
    I certainly do not dismiss your concerns about the do it or lose your payments aspects – and I’m interested in what you’d do instead. And I certainly don’t disagree with any of the points made – by you or by WP or by the rest of the commenters – about the shitty nature of the commentary.

  16. Childcare benefit depends on whether you meet the work/study test of so many hours per week. I’m not sure how many hours it is at the moment, but does allow for part time work. Not sure if it allows for disabilities making if difficult for you to work regular hours though.
    In order to get the 50% rebate on your childcare fees (childcare rebate) you need to meet the test to get Childcare benefit, even if your CCB % is zero due to household income (frozen at $150 000).
    It is likely that teenage parents would meet the criteria in most cases, assuming that they are able to attend school/TAFE/work in a fairly regular manner. I would hope that the system would be a bit flexible for them to take into account individual circumstances, but I’m not holding my breath.

  17. ”Not sure if it allows for disabilities making if difficult for you to work regular hours though.”

    It does.

    You will satisfy the work, training, study test if you are:[…]
    on sick or other paid leave[…]
    on self employment sick leave[…]
    You may be exempt if:
    you or your partner get Carer Allowance or Carer Payment from Centrelink for a child
    you or your partner have a disability (the other partner must still meet the work, training, study test)[…]

    There are other provisions for being on sick leave, parental leave, being a fulltime carer, etc.

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