Friday, 17 May 2013

Scapegoating single mums on benefits and unpaid child maintenance

In Laurie Penny’s article on CIF yesterday about the crisis in masculinity, she writes about the scapegoating of single mothers on benefits by those who prefer to blame women instead of focusing on issues around male unemployment, disenfranchisement, violence etc. In the article, she writes:

There is no creature more loathed and misunderstood in modern Britain than the single mother on benefits. She is blamed both for the financial crisis and for the attendant collapse in men's self-esteem. The academic Geoff Dench was among those who attacked her, complaining that "the taxes of working men pay for [single mothers'] benefits". The taxes of working women, presumably, are spent on shoes and lipstick.

This article was published online on the same day as a data blog analysing the DWP’s publication of child maintenance payments and their subsequent claim that most non-resident parents are paying maintenance – a claim that is strongly refuted by charities, including Gingerbread. 

The DWP claims that ‘81% of maintenance cases were being paid’. However, this number is potentially misleading as the DWP ‘define a parent as ‘compliant’ and a CSA arrangement as ‘effective’ if any proportion of any maintenance payment is made.’

What this means is that a non-resident payment can pay 1p for one month in a quarter towards their child’s maintenance and still be considered ‘compliant’ and ‘effective’ by the DWP. This leads to some seriously fudged statistics – as you can see. 

The article goes on to explain that in March 2012 only 58% of non-resident parents paid their child maintenance in full, 21% paid part and 16% were ‘not paying’. In June 2012 the numbers were 60%, 20% and 15%. However, Gingerbread believes that even this 58% figure might be misleading, ‘as the DWP definition shows, it includes all maintenance direct payments and assumes that these were paid in full’. 

Quoted in the Guardian data blog, Gingerbread Chief Exec Fiona Weir said:

The DWP itself predicts that as more families set up direct payments, once the new child maintenance service starts charging to collect, only one in four (28%) of these arrangements will be paid in full and on time. The department cannot therefore claim to believe that all existing direct pay arrangements are compliant, and it seems extraordinary that it would continue to over-claim in this way.

I’ll get to my point soon but it’s important to understand the numbers. 

Moving on to the Gingerbread website, the charity believes that unpaid child maintenance soared by £25 million to £3.87 billion in the last quarter of 2012. According to Gingerbread:

The new statistics show that the proportion of parents paying child maintenance has declined for the second quarter in succession [5]. This is despite a generous definition of ‘paying maintenance’ used by the CSA, in which a parent is counted as ‘paying maintenance’ if at least one payment, of any amount, has been made in the last three months.

Not only has unpaid child maintenance jumped, today’s statistics also show that in the last nine months the Child Support Agency has taken less enforcement action against parents who don’t pay – this can include deductions from earnings and sums taken from bank accounts

So, what does this have to do with the original quote taken from Laurie Penny’s article?

As Laurie points out, single mothers on benefits are the scapegoats for so many of society’s problems. They’re blamed for everything, from a crisis in masculinity, to the benefits bill. Unlike the married mums the Tories are so desperate to woo back into the home, single mums are told to get back to work – regardless of the costs of childcare. And yet, whenever the finger of blame is pointed at single mums, it is pointed away from the other person that really matters. The dad. 

Of course there are thousands and thousands of dads who are awesome and who want to spend time with their children and who support their children yet for whatever reason, the relationship between parents didn’t work. 

But as the stats from the DWP and Gingerbread clearly tell us, there are also lots of dads who are simply not there. They might not be there emotionally or practically, and they’re certainly not there financially. 

When Geoff Dench grouches that working men’s taxes are paying single mums’ benefits, does he not consider that single parent families could be £3.87 billion better off if their exes paid the money that is owed to their children? (I should qualify here that obviously not all non-resident parents are mothers and 8% of single parents are dads

Whenever we talk about single parenthood, three issues are generally raised. The first is that single mums on benefits are responsible for the crisis in masculinity. The second is court bias towards mothers – a bias that has been shown not to exist. The bias is towards the primary caregiver and in a patriarchal capitalist society with unequal parental leave and a belief that women are naturally nurturing, that tends to be mothers. 

The third is the very rare cases where a woman divorcing a very wealthy man agrees a large maintenance payment. The fact that these stories become news shows how rare they are and is perhaps best typified by Heather Mills and Paul McCartney. 

But I have long believed that the real issue, the true scandal, is the huge amount of money not paid in child maintenance. It is a scandal that thousands of men clearly feel they should take no responsibility for the financial welfare of their child (I focus on financial here because it is perfectly possible that a father still sees his child without paying maintenance). It is shocking that across the UK billions of pounds are denied to mothers trying to bring up their children. And, of course, this lack of income can then contribute to poverty (of course not all single parents are poor) and then single mothers on benefits are blamed for that poverty. Let’s not forget either that these billions of pounds are not for helping single parents to live a life of riley, but to feed, clothe and care for children. 

Put simply, it’s cruel. We blame those single mums living in poverty for all societal ills. We blame them for their own poverty. And yet we don’t look to the fathers that refuse to support their child. I don’t want to play a blame game but it’s surreal that we don’t seem to blame them for anything. 

Single mums are painted as feckless and lazy – even though they’re raising a child or children alone, with shrinking support from the state and often without support from their ex. They are the ones who stayed but we portray them as irresponsible. Isn’t there something very wrong with that picture?

I am not advocating here for all men to have access to their child. There are often good reasons on the mother’s side if the father is never seen again – for example survivors of domestic abuse. This isn’t about women raising children on their own away from the father but about the way society talks about single mums. 

What I want is more recognition that £3.87 billion of child maintenance is not paid by non-resident parents, the majority of whom are men. I want more people to understand that this is scandalous. And I want an end to a blame game that scapegoats single mothers on benefits and ignores the responsibility of absent fathers who have an obligation to financially support their children and who are left to get away with not meeting their responsibility. 

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