JK Rowling makes a very sympathetic case in The Times for the plight of lone parent families living on benefits. If she wasn’t known to be such a great friend and supporter of the Labour Party and the Browns, one might be wholly, instead of partially, convinced by her arguments. Yesterday I was invited by the Yorkshire Post, as one of 40 Yorkshire people, to meet Gordon Brown. The invitation came at very short notice so I couldn’t make it. I couldn’t turn my clients away, even for the Prime Minister! But had it been possible, this topic would have been on my agenda.
I have written before on a similar subject: the Every Family Matters report prepared for the Conservative Party last summer, by Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘Centre for Social Justice’ think tank. I have a client who is a prominent member of the Conservative Party and I was recently told that my views are well known to them. (This information was delivered with a disapproving look.) I came straight back with all my arguments. I intend to pose them again now, in the context of Ms Rowling’s commentary.
I believe in families: families of all types, single, married, divorcing, cohabiting. They all deserve consideration and recognition, rather than approbation. Every one of us belongs to a family, and none of us should ever feel entitled to criticise another family of whom we disapprove.
The one-parent family is a very sensitive, difficult topic. It often encompasses the concept of lone parenting itself and the poverty trap, together with the financial impact and the emotional fallout of children growing up without two parents living in the same home, with one parent struggling to provide all for the most part – and not always successfully.
Not every lone parent on state benefits has the genius to write worldwide bestsellers. Many lone parents on benefits are permanently caught in the poverty trap from which – with or without increased state benefits, better education, better health, better job opportunities – it is a sad fact of life that they will never, ever escape. No government, however much money it throws at the problem or however much it criticises the conduct of girls who have children to gain an income and housing, has the power to permanently remove a certain section of lone parents from state benefits. King Canute couldn’t turn back the tide and no government can alter this situation. It is cruel to expect differently and turn on lone parents who cannot help themselves.
I am reluctant to criticise any lone parent living on benefits, however much their moral conduct may be criticised by others. Most people caught in a poverty trap would, of course, seek to escape from it if they could and knew how. But they don’t and they can’t. For them, there isn’t an immediately obvious or even viable route out. Ms Rowling praises the state benefit system at length, but it has only produced one vastly wealthy millionairess author that I’m aware of: Ms Rowling herself. Some others escape, doing not quite so well as her (who does?) but they aren’t the majority and we know that in many cases, the cycle repeats itself. It won’t change. It never does, no matter how many platitudes are uttered by our politicians.
As for the concept of lone parenting, I am also pragmatic. I accepting what clearly cannot and will not ever be changed. There will always be single parent families, however the situation has come about, and it is wrong to denigrate them. I agree that such setups can be far from ideal for the children. But family breakdown happens and as society continues to move away from the 1950s-type family of mother, father and two children, it will continue to happen. The marriage rate is falling. People are choosing not to marry but to live instead in cohabitant arrangements. Families today, married and cohabiting, in their numerous forms will be scarcely recognisable to a typical 1950s family. Children frequently come into a relationship before marriage, if marriage comes at all. If the relationship breaks down, single parenting occurs.
Instead of criticising lone parents, I believe that political parties should adopt a pragmatic approach and do what they can to help these individuals. Helping them, rather than ignoring or criticising them, won’t increase the problem – but it will certainly help to level the playing field.
Firstly, burdening the State with yet more lone parents and children is not the answer. I suspect that all parties would agree with that. Instead we should look to the parents themselves for proper financial assistance. There are some parents who will live on the poverty line and they are unable to do much except contribute to their children’s upbringing out of meagre wages, channelled via the child support system. But there are parents who currently escape liability. These parents could and should be doing more, to alleviate the financial plight of the family and of the children in particular.
Thus I am back on my well-worn soap box. We should not be distinguishing between “married” and “non-married” families. We should be making far less distinction between them and encouraging more responsibility from parents in all families, irrespective of marital status.
We may never be able to end the poverty trap. However we can and should be doing something to ensure that individuals who walk out on their families and can afford to help do so, and do not throw yet more families onto the welfare state.
Parents who walk out of a married relationship have liabilities on divorce. Parents who walk out of a cohabiting relationship have virtually none. I have written previously of how the children of cohabiting couples are condemned as second class citizens. Legally, married couples cannot divorce before arrangements for any children are first agreed. Yet tens of thousands of children never come before the court because their estranged parents were never married.
My recommendation? Cohabitation legislation.
In our modern-day, right-thinking society, we cannot and should not let outdated, inappropriate Victorian morals rule us. Victoriana belongs where we left it: in 1901.
This is 2010. Families – all families – deserve our support. The country will do better. Families will do better.
Mr Brown and Mr Cameron, are you taking note?