Tuesday 22 December 2020

Against "Poor Parenting"

For decades governments red and blue have worked hard to negate poverty as a social issue. Not by making sure people have enough money to live on, but by individualising it and making it a matter of personal failure - something with seen the government transfer and implement via their Coronavirus strategy. This guest post from Ruth Woolsey looks at some of the sociology behind poverty and parenting and finds the facts do not fit the Tory narrative.

Parents are often blamed for the adverse circumstances they have little control over. Marcus Rashford’s recent child food poverty campaign highlighted punitive attitudes towards parents for not being able to provide for their children. Parents were told that they should not be having children if they cannot afford them, and a number of MPs suggested others were using food vouchers to trade for drugs. Comments on social media during the campaign revealed two distinct camps: those who see children needing to be provided with enough food irrespective of circumstances, and those in another group who think baying for the blood of these parents will somehow ensure their children will be fed or, to be honest, don't care. Many Conservative MPs are in this latter camp after voting against a half-term extension on free school meals, alongside working class Tories who offer themselves up as Christmas dinner each time they cast their vote.

Where we are born and to whom largely determines our life chances, which is why upward social mobility does not occur as frequently as fans of meritocracy suggest. This doesn’t mean intelligence varies at birth depending on socioeconomic status, as eugenicists claim, but that reproduction of inequality prevents many from reaching their potential. This is why the RSA’s advocacy backs a basic income, to give people space and some financial security to unleash creativity which they believe everyone possesses, but often do not get the opportunity to discover. This is because structural inequalities impede poorer people. For example, in education, children of wealthier parents are more likely to navigate education confidently, as well as having all the material resources necessary for successful attainment generally leading to greater choice of career and higher earning potential. In his 2003 study of early child development, Feinstein found how a low attaining child at two years old from a privileged socioeconomic background will outperform a high attaining child from a poor socioeconomic group by the age of six.

Drawing on Bourdieu’s ideas of social, cultural, economic and symbolic capitals demonstrates how being embedded within higher socioeconomic status contributes to sustaining class privilege. Wilson and Herbert reflecting on their 1978 study of children and parents in the inner city argued that the 1944 Education Act's aspiration of equality of opportunity would not be realised while inequality persists. Therefore, people born into poorer families are not less intellectually capable than wealthier groups but lack the necessary resources and capitals for upward social mobility. Rich people like to claim they work hard for their wealth. Some poorer people subscribe to such beliefs, perhaps because it makes them feel less resentful. But they should feel resentful, because wealthy people have not obtained their wealth single-handedly but through the work of others. It would also be impossible for those on low wages to ever reach such wealth. Yet it is poorer groups who are accused of being ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ at the expense of ‘hard-working taxpayers’. On the contrary, thanks to decades of tax breaks and handouts it is the wealthiest and most powerful who take most from the public purse. During Marcus Rashford’s campaign how many MPs voting against the school meals extension were claiming their own lunch expenses were highlighted. And minimum wage workers of the four largest supermarkets have to claim tax credits when their employers could pay them a living wage and still keep their millions. But it is the poorest who have become dominant and persistant in popular and political discourse as ‘undeserving’, contributing to the ‘doxa’, a Bourdieusian term for showing how such stereotypes come, albeit unconsciously, to be seen as ‘self-evident truths’ rather than merely opinions which are open to contestation and discussion. In reality, one in eight workers now live in poverty and this includes professionals such as teachers and NHS staff who have resorted to foodbanks and emergency accommodation over the last decade.

For those claiming benefits, Patrick’s 2014 study on the lived experience of surviving on welfare, found most have a strong work ethic and work hard at finding employment. For many unable to take advantage of the education system often find themselves in low paid, monotonous ‘junk jobs’ but still maintain a strong commitment to work. Self-esteem can be jeopardised by undertaking work deemed as low status leading to mental health issues, and in turn, poor physical health. Added to this, low wages mean having to hold down several jobs for some families which leaves less time to invest in their children’s education. Therefore, although it is clear most poor people work hard, the only jobs often available are bad for physical and mental health and the wellbeing of children.

Suggesting people should not have children if they cannot afford them not only evokes images of eugenics movements, but raises further ethical and economic considerations. As it is, the reason people usually find partners from similar class backgrounds is called ‘assortative mating’; those from the higher socioeconomic strata tend not to associate outside of their social class, particularly since the rising growth in inequality from the 1980s, thereby further reproducing inequality by concentrating wealth within this group. That leaves potential parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who may on some level realise social mobility is a myth and that their financial status is unlikely to change, deciding to have children at any time as this is as good as any. To suggest preventing those who have been unlucky at birth from having children is inhumane. Besides, when one in three working families would not be able to keep their rented or mortgaged home if they couldn’t work for more than a month highlights just how common vulnerability to poverty is.

Unfortunately, poverty does add additional strain on childrearing which is not without consequences. Stress from juggling bills, worrying about how to pay for basic items, anxiety over children getting bullied for not having the ‘right’ clothes, living in inadequate housing and so on, can lead to what neurologists Sonne and Gash describe as intense repeated exposure to stress. In turn, parents can feel exhausted and may experience empathy fatigue and PTSD. In their paper on the lived experience of poverty, Rose and McAuley argue it is this ‘snap shot’ of parents struggling which is portrayed as poor parenting rather than an honest account of the multiple issues arising from poverty. Instead, stressed parents are condemned for smoking, drinking alcohol and taking drugs regardless, with simplistic remarks about how money spent on these items could be used on food for their children. Similarly, items deemed by most as basic such as a widescreen TV or a pet are viewed as luxuries for poor people which they should not be spending money on. In her ethnographic study of food bank use, Garthwaite observes how this “detracts from the bigger picture of the everyday hardship people face…this denial of a right to make choices or have luxuries strips away basic human dignity” (2016, p.68). Not being able to afford things for their children and themselves makes parents feel powerless and “erode[s] their sense of self-worth and self-confidence, often accompanied by anxiety and depression”, as Rose and McAuley note (2019, p.138). Consequently, mental and physical health is compromised further adding to the burden.

In spite of the hardship, Rose and McAuley found parents determined to try and better the lives of their children, and this sometimes meant going without food or other basic items for themselves. However, right wing policy makers exploit the consequences of poverty where parents show signs of exhaustion and stress by maintaining such behaviours are individual character flaws. Blaming people for their own poverty has a long history and during the recent bout of public sector cuts, the Tories impemented parenting programmes to ‘help’ parents improve their behaviour but with no additional financial support. To take away or significantly reduce public funds for services, allowing public housing rents to climb, paying no mind to zero hour contracts and inadequate wages, and then to blame parents for parenting poorly is sadistic. Any reform agenda failing to address redistribution will always be a sticking plaster approach and a waste of money. The point for the Tories however is it is punitive; that it punishes the poor who are used as scapegoats for an economy where social democracy is unidentifiable but Neoliberalism is in full swing.

In contrast to current family programmes, Surestart which was wound down by the Conservatives was inclusive, supportive, and enjoyed by middle class and working class parents. Indeed, as a rule parenting does not differ much between the classes and that poorer parents may even practice some parenting which is more beneficial for children, such as eating meals as a family, more frequently than those from higher socioeconomic groups. However, it is not a competition of who can parent better but to highlight most parents try their best and should be supported and not demonised. For the children who do have go into care, examples can be given of how the UK government has proven to be a bad parent themselves.

Rose and McAuley argue that “careful distinction needs to be made between the damaging impact of financial stress on parents themselves and their parenting behaviours with their children” (p.140). Simply, adequate money whether through wages or welfare for families with young children, and young people who do not have family support is what is necessary to break intergenerational poverty and prevent its detrimental impacts. There may still be issues which need addressing such as mental health or practical assistance, for which intervention may be necessary, but without the burden of poverty psychological wounds have a chance to heal properly.

To make this happen the discourse about poor parents has to be challenged to show that parents who struggle financially are not lazy or inadequate, but have been born into circumstances more common than politics and the media like to pretend. The public need to understand it is politics and not budgeting problems responsible for inequality. If the public are already aware it is possible to end child poverty, then there is a bigger question as to why they do not support this. As Wilson and Herbert summed up back in their Parents and Children in the Inner City, “the problem of disadvantaged children does not lie in genetic or in psychological deficits, it lies in an unequal distribution of the resources of our society. The position of the children who grow up in poverty is one of hope, because their disadvantage, given the will, can be eliminated” (p.198).

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Blissex said...

«Parents were told that they should not be having children if they cannot afford them, and a number of MPs suggested others were using food vouchers to trade for drugs.»

Let's not confuse the two: while "using food vouchers to trade for drugs" is just a smear because while it happens, it happens very rarely, the "should not be having children if they cannot afford them" is something that most people can relate to and it has to be discussed seriously.

Let's turn that into first "should not be have [Bentleys] if they cannot afford them" and then into "should not be have [horses] if they cannot afford them".

* In the case of gas-guzzling cars I doubt that anybody would disagree that if one cannot afford them "society" has no obligation to pay for their gasoline consumption. If you can't afford to keep them, let them rust or sell them.
* In the case of horses, their upkeep is quite expensive, and I guess that many would disagree that "society" has an obligation to pay for it, but there is the angle that unlike cars horses are living things, so putting them down if someone cannot afford them, or selling them on, is sad even if it is entirely legitimate.

For cars and horses my guess is that most people are comfortable with the idea that people who cannot afford them end up losing them by having to dispose of them or sell them, without any support from "societ".

In the case of children I guess that very few would feel that once they have been conceived or born it is such a good idea to dispose of them or sell them because the parents cannot afford them but then there are two main choices:

#1 To focus on the rights of the parents, and to argue that since children are human beings, any parent has an unlimited right to any number their want, and "society" will pay for them all if the parents cannot as children should not be disposed of as cars or horses could. But this has at least two problems: it is very unfair to parents who can afford to have them, and may encourage excessive reproduction. The unfairness to parents who can afford children can only be solved by having "society" pay for *all* childrenh, and the problem with subsidizing fully one particular type of spending on reproduction leading to excessive reproduction is not easy to solve gently.

#2 To argue that since children are human beings, "society" have the duty to pay any child their parents cannot afford to raise, but also that if parents have children they cannot afford they must suffer some form of penalty, because choosing to have children that they cannot afford to keep is a grievous form of child abuse towards those children, condemning those children to deprivation and a bad start in life, and perhaps a form of abuse of "society"'s duties.

Blissex said...

«#1 [...] any parent has an unlimited right to any number their want, and "society" will pay for them all [...]
#2 "[...] society" have the duty to pay any child their parents cannot afford to raise, but also that if parents have children they cannot afford they must suffer some form of penalty

The currently popular solution is in part the #2 one, to punish those who have had the children, most commonly divorced fathers, and the argument seems to be that:

* Men are neither forced to nor have a right to have sex or children.

* Therefore men have an absolute responsibility to pay for the children they father when they choose to have sex.

* If men make women have their children and cannot afford the responsibility to pay child maintenance, that is abusive towards the mothers they have made to have their children, and abusive towards the children that they made into living.

* To remedy that abusive fatherhood it is then "society" that will pay for it, but also "society" will sentence the deadbeat fathers to prison to punish them for their abuse of the privilege of fatherhood.

That is a solution that is widely supported by both progressive advocates of women's reproductive rights, and by conservative advocates of a minimalist state and of personal responsibility, especially if the father belongs to some despised low income group.

The obvious application of the logic of solution #2 is that if children need free (paid for by "society") school meals, that is because of abusive deadbeat fathers, and they should be punished.