Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Child Benefits?

In times of economic insecurity, nothing calms the nerves better than a good moral panic.

The last recession coincided with the media interest in the James Bulger murder, and the British media and sanctimonious politicians have recently found plenty of reasons for moralising, with the investigation into the death of "Baby P" in Haringey and the Karen Matthews prosecution for kidnapping her own daughter.

The Baby P case in particular fuelled many column inches split between sermonising about human nature and trying to find a person to blame: anything but a serious examination of childcare inside capitalism. Within hours of the blame being squarely laid at the convenient door of supposedly incompetent employees of a failing council department, a Home Office survey was published showing how the (thankfully) rare incidence of child fatality is in fact just the tip of the iceberg. While approximately 1.5 million children are considered possibly at risk of deprivation or abuse, councils have the resources to actively monitor less than 2 percent of these. To find causes then we need to look beyond blaming individuals for the situation.

It may seem simplistic to blame the treatment of Baby P and Karen Matthews' daughter on this social system rather than on the immediate family in each instance. It is a complicated picture for sure, but we shouldn't ignore the wider picture: the economic hardship of the majority inside capitalism, the atomised and alienated nature of much of our social interaction, and the anti-human values that flourish where profit comes first. We should perhaps not be surprised at the depths to which some stoop as adults when they have grown up in a society that materially and psychologically deprives and abuses humanity.

Certainly it’s not just working class children that can suffer emotional abuse from their parents. While the media used these events as an excuse to go to town on the so-called underclass, blaming single mums on benefits for most of the world's problems, it is worth noting one notable extended family which is full of single parents and are significant recipients of state benefits. The family Windsor might look a tad out of place on the sort of estates typified by TV's "Shameless", but despite their economic privilege, they are still far from being a good example of healthy emotional functioning.

But no matter how many "good parenting" books you guiltily read, it’s harder to bring up happy children if you lack space, or the road outside is noisy and dangerous, or there's no park nearby, or the nearest toddler's group or GP surgery requires a bus ride to access. There is a mountain of evidence that poorer communities generally suffer more from such environmental or "community safety" issues.

Children may well be "innocent", "our future" and other such sentimentalised slogans, but more significantly they are also an immense hindrance to the smooth operation of the system of production for profit. The care and attention children need just doesn't square easily with the time commitment demanded by employment. Despite ever-increasing standards of living (at least if measured by how flat your screen is, or how many different channels you can watch the latest "UK's Worst-Behaved Kids" TV show on), the working week always seems to come in at around 40 hours. This allows just enough time for sleep, to feed yourself, and otherwise recover before the next shift.

Inadequate childcare provision has been recognised by the government as a reason why some women (usually) give up work to bring up their child full-time. This undoubtedly helps the child's emotional health and happiness. Unfortunately it reduces the productivity of UK plc. This has prompted a range of government measures to try and encourage employers to make the workplace more flexible for parents.

Labour has made much of its 1999 commitment to reduce child poverty. it's probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that this promise (to halve child poverty by 2010) has been the carrot dangled in front of the Labour membership that allowed it to go along with the many downsides of the last 10 years in government. Foremost amongst these of course was the Iraq War (which doesn't appear to have done much for child poverty in that country). But of course it's only UK kids that the government is concerned about. And not even all of them.

The Labour government is clearly significantly less interested in the care of the kids of the unemployed. After all, in their own carefully-constructed phrase, it is only "hard-working families" that get their support. The rest can pretty much rot. A few days after the Haringey report findings were published, the government detailed their intention to get single mothers on benefits to sit lie detector tests to get them back to work within 12 months of the birth. This means forcing 12 month-old children into full-time childcare for up to 40 hours per week. The government's own commissioned research indicates the long-term damage – in terms of emotional attachment, security, anger management and ability to form healthy relationships in later life – that childcare (i.e. away from primary care-giver) of over 16 hours per week can do to infants under three years of age. Remember the boast about "joined-up government"?

Government promises are all very well, but it's the economy that usually decides whether a political reform will stick. While Labour has made great play of how much it has prioritised child poverty in its ten years in office, numerous reports in the last few months have shown just how little impact this effort has made, and how structural poverty is inside capitalism.

One of the main criticisms that world socialists have of attempts to reform the insane system called capitalism, is that gains obtained one year may disappear when the economy dips, and you find yourself back at square one again. That looks to be what is happening as we enter a period of recession. A slump is the market's way of correcting a serious failing – that is, the diminishing levels of profit returning to the owning class. That recalibration must occur inside capitalism, regardless of the damage to be incurred by those dependent on the state, such as children, the unemployed and the poor.

The government's 2010 target will probably then be missed, and by a long shot - the best part of a million children. The government's response? – to boast of another target, a bigger target. This time they promise full eradication of child poverty by 2020. An impressive objective perhaps but so what? – if someone tells you a small lie and you find them out, it's hard to be impressed if they respond by telling you an even bigger lie.

The council workers involved in these recent "Broken Britain" news items, those whose job it is to mop up the human victims of the profit machine, were variously described as "failing", "incompetent", "not fit for purpose". These adjectives should instead be directed at this social system, and at a quite fundamental level. Let's not forget that – as unsympathetic and deluded an individual as she appears to be – Karen Matthews would simply not have kidnapped her daughter if it weren't for her confidence (very well-placed as it turned out) that her unwitting accomplices in the media would be likely to stump up a £50,000 reward to keep the story on their front pages.


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