tatjna (tatjna) wrote,

In which I go *facepalm* and rant a little

I woke up this morning with I Wanna Come Over by Melissa Etheridge stuck in my head. I used to be a big fan of Ms Etheridge, and truth be told, I still am. I really like her 'too much whiskey' voice, and at the time her lyrics were pushing the boundaries of what's ok to sing about. I even did one of her songs in karaoke once, an occasion that will be forever known as the Too Much Port Incident. But you know what? Despite the talent and the fact that I own four of her albums, she's still a whiner. She just sings her emo music with attitude is all.

Oh yeah, this: "That means discouraging them from getting pregnant in the first place. To that end, the DPB should be abolished.". Gotta love the Business Roundtable. They have all the answers! Except for the answers to the question of all those single parents who were married when their children were born. Are they saying people should just stop having kids altogether, in case they split up later and end up a 'drain on the system'? And I would like to ask Ms Mitchell, who seems to have a lot to say about how single parents should live, if she really thinks everyone on the DPB is doing it because they think it's a free ride?

So what was that about the 90s? Well, last time a National government was in power, they made a beeline for the DPB with work testing and 25% reduction in benefit. I happened to be on the DPB at the time after leaving an abusive relationship. If I'd stayed, I'd probably be dead by now (suicide). I was on the DPB for 18 months, and during that time I also worked part time, cutting up meat at the local freezing works. It was NOT a fucking free ride. It wasn't a ride at all, to be honest. It was work. The actual paid work, the bit where I got to go and hang out with other people and cut up bits of meat and chat with adults and get PAID for it, was my escape. The rest was daily drudgery, trying to make ends meet, being the only one there, 24/7, to be responsible for this life I'd helped create. I had a chronic chest infection that took 12 months to clear up, teeth problems, mental health issues (depression) from being in that relationship, no money and not a lot of hope. Without the DPB and a heap of support from my Mum I would have had even less hope because I wouldn't have been able to leave. And I'm resourceful, strong, well-spoken, reasonably educated and highly employable. Plenty of people who end up on the DPB are not as fortunate as me. And Ms Mitchell would have those people left without a means of escape, all in the name 'deterring teenage girls from getting pregnant.'

Actually, you know what? I wrote a fricking essay about this. Yes, it's simplistic, and it's 101 level, and a whole lot of other criticisms are possible. And it's long. But it also got me an A+ so it can't be too far off the mark. Here it is:

“Please remove your invisible hand from my backside!” Women, work and welfare in the last 35 years: feminist perspectives

One of the tasks of government is to create policy that improves the wellbeing of its people. In the late 20th century, New Zealand went through drastic changes in political ideology and policy, from ‘The Golden Era’ of the welfare state in the 1950s, to neoliberal reforms in the 1990s, followed by the ‘Third Way’ approach in the early 2000s (Duncan, 2004). Each government implemented policy according to its own ideology, in an attempt to improve conditions for the population. Women make up approximately 50 percent of New Zealand society, yet women, particularly sole mothers*, have traditionally experienced poverty and systemic inequality in their lives that affects their wellbeing (Rowlingson and McKay, 2002). Has social policy in the last 30 years strengthened the position of women in New Zealand society?

This essay uses socialist feminist perspectives to critique social policy changes to New Zealand welfare, and particularly to the Domestic Purposes Benefit since its inception in 1973, and questions whether changes in policy have addressed the difficulties experienced by women in a capitalist society.

* NB: While I acknowledge that sole parenthood affects both women and men, I have chosen to use the terms ‘sole mothers’ and ‘women’ in this essay, instead of the more generic ‘sole parents’ and ‘people’, because the essay is written from a feminist perspective.

A woman’s place is in the home? – before the DPB
To explore feminist perspectives of change in policy and the treatment of sole mothers in the last 35 years, it is important to understand a little of the background, ideals and values of the scene in which these changes took place. Pascall (1997) describes socialist feminism as “concerned with the historical oppression of women under capitalism … relations between class and gender … and the role of the welfare state in organizing domestic life in capital’s interest.” For socialist feminists the institution of the family is considered an instrument of capitalism, assisting with the reproduction of the next generation of workers, with man as the head and woman as the unpaid domestic worker whose task it is to bear and rear children. (Duncan, 2004).

The ideal of family with a male as breadwinner and a female as unpaid housekeeper and child rearer has been upheld by the New Zealand state for much of its history. In the early 20th century, sex-differentiated wage fixing and welfare policies provided men with wages sufficient to support a wife and family, assuming that married women would be dependent on a male breadwinner (Nolan, 2000). A pension was provided for widows, but there was no provision for women with ‘no good reason’ for being without a breadwinner – women with illegitimate children, or deserted wives, were considered to be ‘to blame’ for their situation and were given no help save the opportunity to obtain a maintenance order for their children, with no legal right to pursue maintenance for themselves. (Goodger, 1998).

Scarlet women? – the early days of the DPB
It wasn’t until the second wave of feminism and changes in family structure in the 1960s that the attitudes started to change, and solutions for sole mothers were sought universally (Goodger, 1998). In 1972, the Royal Commission on Social Security proposed the introduction of a Domestic Purposes Benefit covering the living expenses of sole mothers. The benefit was introduced in 1973, and being relatively generous, was seen by many feminists as a step toward women’s economic independence, giving them the means to leave abusive relationships or, in some cases, to keep their children (Kingfisher and Goldsmith, 2001). Others saw it as recognition of reproduction as valuable in society, through the state providing a woman with a ‘living wage’ to care for her children. (Ritchie, 1993).

Other feminists felt that the aim of the Domestic Purposes Benefit was to support children rather than empower women (Goodger, 1998; Baker and Tippin, 2002), and only provided support for women in their capacity as mothers (Charles, 2000). The Domestic Purposes Benefit remained separate from the widow’s benefit, suggesting that aid was based on the cause of a woman’s circumstances (Goodger, 1998), and indicating that attitudes about ‘fault’ were still influencing policy. The surveillance of women to ensure they had no male partners, and the expectation that a relationship with a man would provide financial support for a woman and remove the necessity for a benefit, was considered to reinforce the ‘woman as dependent’ stereotype (Kingfisher and Goldsmith, 2001).

Uptake of the Domestic Purposes Benefit increased by over a third annually until 1976 (Goodger, 1998). The new visibility of sole mothers brought about social disapproval – they were “frowned upon for shamelessly indulging in extra-marital sex and then expecting the taxpayer to care for their offspring. Women who had left unsatisfactory marriages… were castigated for walking out on their domestic responsibilities, for breaking their marriage vows.” (Ritchie, 1993). This value judgement by society, and increasing government expenditure on the Domestic Purposes Benefit, prompted a review in 1976 to assess whether the Domestic Purposes Benefit was bringing about changes in the behaviour of women (Goodger, 1998). The review committee, known as the Horn Committee, concluded that provision of the benefit was producing substantial behavioural effects (this was refuted by later research), and recommended that benefits be reduced for up to six months. However, this policy had little to no effect on the marital or reproductive behaviour of women and simply served to reduce the income of sole mothers and to exacerbate the stigmatisation of sole motherhood (Goodger, 1998). Sole mothers were caught in a no-win situation where they were either considered ‘dole bludgers’ if they stayed home with their children, or ‘neglectful mothers’ if they chose to work (Ritchie, 1993).

Dole bludger or neglectful mother? – DPB in the 1990s
The election of the Labour government in 1984 brought about radical changes of policy. The new government had a neoliberal agenda, based in values of efficiency, competition, free market economics and freedom of the individual (Duncan, 2004). They set about liberalising the economy by reducing subsidies and trade barriers, floating the dollar, and privatising many previously government-run organizations (Davey, 2001). These policies led to an increase in unemployment, which was borne most heavily by women (Du Plessis, 1992). After its re-election in 1987, Labour turned to the public sector, focusing on increasing labour market flexibility and on reducing welfare spending – a direction which was continued by the National government that followed.

In 1991, the National government implemented policies of welfare reform, including benefit cuts of up to 24%, accompanied by a neoliberal rhetoric of the ‘enabling’ society, which claimed that the welfare state created poverty by encouraging state dependency and that lower benefits and tighter targeting were required to push people into paid work (McClelland and St John, 2006). Motherhood was no longer regarded as a legitimate reason for poor women’s reliance on the state. Sole mothers were told that they could now be counted as “separate, autonomous, individuals whose very individuality provided them with the means to achieve self-sufficiency.” (Kingfisher and Goldsmith, 2001).

While neoliberalism would seem to propose equality by degendering social policy and reconstituting poor sole mothers as potential able-bodied workers (Kingfisher and Goldsmith, 2001; Wilson, 2000), it fails to acknowledge that not everyone starts from the same place. Statistically, sole mothers are more likely to have low levels of education and skill, and are therefore less competitive in the employment market, and are more likely to be employed in low-paying, low-skilled jobs (Rowlingson and McKay, 2002). The enactment of the Employment Contracts Act removed the power of collective bargaining, making it difficult for many women in low-paid jobs to negotiate suitable wages and conditions for themselves (Hill, 2004). Fewer employment opportunities and a lack of affordable childcare exacerbated the difficulties, and in many cases women could not find jobs with sufficient wages to cover their expenses (Goodger and Larose, 1999; Baker, 2004). Rather than empowering women to become self-sufficient in a market of equal opportunity, the benefit cuts of 1991 drove many women further into poverty (McClelland and St John, 2006). For those that did find work, the focus on women as gender-neutral worker-citizens required them to ignore responsibilities that fell outside the market - yet sole mothers could not ignore their children, and were forced to continue in their ‘private’ responsibilities while shouldering the responsibilities of an employee as well (Kingfisher and Goldsmith, 2001). The work of a sole mother had effectively doubled.

On 1 April 1997 the National government introduced two new welfare policies. The first was a change to the benefit abatement schedule and a requirement to report income regularly. The second was a ‘work-test’ requiring sole mothers to seek part-time work when their youngest child turned 14, and for recipients whose youngest child was between 7 and 13 to attend an annual planning meeting with their case manager to discuss future plans for employment. Failure to meet either of these requirements could result in a reduction or removal of benefit (Goodger, 1999). In addition, a childcare subsidy was introduced to assist those on low incomes or in part-time work. In 1998, the government tightened the work-test parameters, requiring sole mothers to actively seek part-time work or training (minimum 15 hours per week) when their youngest child reached 6 years old, and to seek full-time work when the youngest child reached 14. Women with younger children were expected to attend planning meetings in preparation for job seeking (Baker and Tippin, 2002).

Many women found the requirements to be inflexible. Case managers would allocate jobs without regard to their impact on family circumstances (Baker and Tippin, 2002), and women were often asked to work long hours or unrealistic shifts. Mothers who could not meet requirements such as starting at 6am were considered to be ‘difficult’ and those with no support network to help in the event of a sick child were likely to be discriminated against by employers as ‘unreliable’. Unwillingness or inability to accommodate the demands of the employment environment could result in removal of the benefit (Baker, 2004).

The new system worked well for other women. Increases in abatement allowances meant they could work at better-paid jobs, and childcare subsidies allowed them to be more flexible in employment. Many women took jobs close to home, with hours coinciding with school time so that they could care for their children before and after school, and save travel time and expense. Some were able to achieve balance between income flow, responsibility as a parent and their work requirements. However, mothers were constantly worried about their children’s behaviour, health and supervision, work/family tensions, and their lower value as employees, and many were only able to look for short term work, thus entering a cycle that kept them in poverty (Baker, 2004).

The welfare reforms were aimed towards rehabilitation of individuals who had ‘deviated’ from the capitalist ideal of employment as the ultimate goal. In the neoliberal view, these women’s failure to fulfill the requirements of full autonomy was considered to be a personal failure, and the policy was directed at ‘reforming’ individuals “through their engagement in a whole array of programmes for their ethical reconstruction as active citizens” (Kingfisher and Goldsmith, 2001). Tacit within this approach was a value judgement that these women were somehow at fault for their situation, and also an assumption that sole mothers are not ‘active citizens’, that raising children is not contributing to society. While neoliberal policies had ‘freed’ women from the dependence of the early to mid 20th century, it had done so by expecting sole mothers to meet state ‘workfare’ demands and ignore their own and societal images of ‘good mothers’ (Baker and Tippin, 2002).

Will the feminists ever be happy? – the Third Way and women in the 2000s
The election of the Labour government of 1999 brought a swing in ideology towards the Third Way, defined as “seeking to revive social-democratic values while wishing to preserve the achievements of market liberalisation.” (Duncan, 2004). The work-test was removed, allowing women to once more choose to be full time mothers. This seems to indicate recognition of parenting as a valid occupation in society, and a move towards collective responsibility for the welfare of children. However, so far no attempt has been made to restore the benefit cuts of 1991 (McClelland and St John, 2006), therefore the choice of a sole mother to stay home with her children is still a choice to live in poverty and dependence.

Instead of focusing on increasing benefit income, the Labour government has focused welfare policy on improving incentives to work, and improving assistance to working mothers. The Employment Relations Act 2000 strengthened the ability of women in low-paid jobs to negotiate better conditions. Paid parental leave, introduced in 2002 (Department of Labour website, accessed 9 May 2008), supports working women through childbirth. Working For Families, introduced in 2005, is a package of tax credits, accommodation supplements and childcare subsidies aimed at low income families, and has been the flagship of Labour social policy in the third term (McClelland and St John, 2006). It aims to ensure an adequate income for those on the Domestic Purposes Benefit, while supplying a financial incentive to move into work.

These policies indicate an attempt to address some of the issues that women, particularly sole mothers, face in juggling work and family responsibilities – those of work-related expenses and child care. However, in many respects this approach seems simply a more palatable form of the neoliberal ideal of women as gender-neutral worker-citizens, and largely ignores the contribution to society, and cost to the woman, of reproduction. It is still coloured by the capitalist ideal of paid work as the goal, and the opportunity cost related to having children is still carried mainly by women, limiting their ability to participate fully in citizenship and disadvantaging them in the employment market (Curtin and Devere, 2006).

In the socialist ‘ideal world’, communities would share family responsibilities, and women could participate fully in public life and enter into relationships without the “implicit coercion involved in women’s loss of independence due to child-rearing.” (Duncan, 2004). To achieve this, the unpaid work generally done by women would need to be valued in a similar way to that of paid work (Waring, 1988). While equal pay for work of equal value is on the agenda of the current government, (Labour party website, accessed 9 May 2008), this has, at time of writing, yet to produce results, and women with children continue to be disadvantaged in a society that measures production in terms of money.

The policy changes surrounding the Domestic Purposes Benefit over its history form a picture, not only of general policy directions throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but also of the attitudes, values and beliefs relating to women’s position in society over the same period. The approaches taken have varied from financial acknowledgement of the value of reproduction through payment of tax-funded benefits to sole mothers, through denial of motherhood as having value and a push for sole mothers to enter the workforce, to a more recent attempt to find a balance between work and family responsibilities for all parents, and for the state to assist sole mothers to participate fully in the employment market.

While the ideals and values driving social policy have changed and attempts have been made to improve the lot of women, assumptions about women’s roles and the institutionalized undervaluing of unpaid work, and the resulting poverty and dependence for women, have persisted to this day. Until these assumptions change, and a new way of measuring the value of unpaid work as a contribution to society is developed, women who choose to have children will continue to be disadvantaged.

Now you know why I feel like I'm back in the 90s. And I know there are people out there who disagree with the concept of equal pay for work of equal value, and I tend to agree that it's so complex as to be almost impossible to implement. But the DPB is at least a step in the direction of recognition of the value to society of raising children. Try letting those single parents starve and let's see what happens to society...

Hey, I know, let's forcibly castrate the fathers of teenage pregnancies! That'll stop 'em shagging!

Or we could copy Ohio!

Here's another flashback to the 90s -Help for DPB students axed. You know those people we want off the benefit? Yup, let's stop helping them to get themselves educated. Hello? How many of those people are people like me, who have no qualifications and have had a bad run, that just need to get a bit of momentum? I completely fail to see how this funding cut is of benefit to New Zealand as a whole.

Especially in comparison to this: Elite Formula One racing school funded by SPARC (that's the Sport and Recreation Council, which is government-funded). There were 9 participants in this, all young men, most likely all from privileged backgrounds (how do you get good enough to compete and be selected for this without financial backing hmm?). While reading it, all I could think was "How many DPB recipients could be helped with their education for a year on the money it cost to put these guys through this?"

Something is very fucked up about a system that prioritises training Formula One drivers over educating parents of our future taxpayers. Just saying. And the scary thing is it's all happened before and it failed then too.

And I just keep coming back to "At least I didn't vote for them."

I think that might very well have been the longest lj post ever. I could shorten it by taking the essay out but I have nowhere to put it so it can be linkylinkied. Suggestions welcome.
Tags: censor this!, current government sucks, doom n gloom it's for breakfast, dpb
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