By Cathy Nugent
Government social policy has focussed heavily on issues to do with 'the family'. Some of this is warm and friendly - policy geared towards balancing work and family life, for instance. Some of it is more aggressive - measures to tackle problem, 'anti-social' families: parents who don't get their children to school or teenagers who roam the streets after 9pm.
The National Family and Parenting Institute has produced a report which gives a snapshot of life for parents and their children in 2003: the conditions of work, the quantity and quality of services available. They also surveyed parents to find out what they thought about work, home and public services.
Tackling poverty - and child poverty in particular - has been for New Labour about getting more people into work and they've been helped in that by a buoyant economy. Nothing wrong with new jobs if the jobs are well-paid. But they aren't always. Wage incomes which have to be subsidised through the Tax Credits are not adequate even with the subsidy. Wage levels and government subsidy (a subsidy to the employer, let us not forget) are not in the scope of this report. But the report does tell us some interesting consequences of this 'drive to work':
- 57% of lone mothers are economically active compared to 48% in 1992.
- 54% of mothers with children under 5 work compared to 48% in 1992.
So has this increased level of parents in work decreased child poverty? Somewhat. According to the Government 3.8 million children are living in poverty (less than half average weekly earnings) and that is a reduction of 400,000.
The Government had pledged to reduce child poverty by 25% (around a million) by 2004.
A government which is actually increasing inequality between the worst off and best off will always find the figures for child poverty (measured relative to average earnings) difficult to shift. The low levels of national minimum wage also do not help. The UK still has the highest level of child poverty in Europe.
What of work-life balance? According to this report it is overall getting more complicated, more difficult to manage. The government and employers' idea about the 'flexible working' required to juggle with family responsibilities is not necessarily the same thing as parents' idea.
Britain has the highest level of part-time work in the EU. That may be good for parents in the abstract, but part-time work is often concentrated in the lowest paid sectors of employment. And it is women/mothers in particular who do it.
The picture that emerges is of shift parenting, with more people working unsociable hours and weekends - hardly conducive to 'family life'. Or one parent will be working fewer hours and the other, typically the father, very long hours.
Often parents end up working to pay for childcare. According to the TGWU, women have to work three hours (and 4.6 hours in London and the south-east) to pay for one day of nursery care. Many parents end up feeling "what is the point of working?" Which might account for why increased childcare is not very high on the list of parents' demands.
But stopping or reducing work is not an affordable option either as long as 'flexible' working in any job is not a right, and as long as, where it does exist, by 'flexible' working what employers mean is low pay, unsociable hours, and no union representation.
- Making Britain Family-Friendly: www.nfpi.org