The relationship between poverty and parenting is translated into an accusation, a shameful label of individual inadequacy. Ann Czernik discusses so-called ‘women’s work’ with feminist writer and activist SELMA JAMES
ORCED to make the harsh choice between food or warmth, mum-of-one Laura burst into tears. It was the moment the 32-year-old single mum realised she needed to swallow her pride and seek help from a foodbank for the sake of her three-year-old son.”
Just another tale of a single mum’s struggle in Britain’s mainstream media enshrining Britain’s Dickensian and degrading approach to welfare.
But what if Laura said sod that, food is a feminist issue, and along with the rest of the 2.5 million single parents across the UK, demanded the same right to eat as her better-heeled brothers and sisters?
Instead of swallowing her pride, she might be digesting social justice.
Selma James certainly thinks so.
The feminist icon spoke to the Morning Star about food and feminism and said: “The ending of poverty is the first feminist issue. It’s about power and we haven’t had any.”
The economy of parenting is still regarded as “women’s work,” regardless of the sex of those delivering care to our children.
In the 1970s, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James redefined the work that women traditionally undertook within the family.
It was a radical shift undermining the notion that caring was an innate effect of sex, or an inherently feminine responsibility.
James and Dalla Costa repositioned “women’s work” as labour worthy of recognition and financial reward within any capitalist economy.
Their analysis demonstrated that women’s work drove the economy and should be compensated accordingly. Their work underpinned the International Wages for Housework Campaign.
Feminist debate has moved on considerably since then, exploring gender, and identity, and individualism. As has the traditional composition of the family.
A study of millennial mothers in the US found that 57 per cent were lone parents and we are seeing similar trends in Britain.
The pandemic should change how we speak about feminism, and reframe our attention onto the earlier questions posed by James and her colleagues as to the nature of “women’s work” and the business of feeding, clothing and caring for our families and communities as lone parents regardless of sex or gender.
James explained: “The question of money is the hierarchy of the whole society. The people at the bottom get least.”
Anyone who delivers “women’s work” is at a similar disadvantage, regardless of sex or gender.
James said: “We’ve lost the right to eat. That was 1945’s big contribution. In the colonies we knew people were starving but in the UK you had a right to food.
“The government provided it. You had a right to housing and a right to healthcare. The first that went was food.”
It began with Thatcher ending free school milk and culminated in the benefit cap for families and introduction of the discriminatory two-child limit under another female prime minister, Theresa May.
James said that the battle for recognition was lost by ambition.
“Many of us said that the issue was poverty. But many said it was our right to be in charge” and noted that “Women in power don’t care about grassroots women, they’re interested in themselves.”
A Human Rights Watch analysis of public spending data shows that between 2010 and 2018 public welfare to assist children and families fell by 44 per cent, far outstripping cuts in many other areas of government expenditure.
One of the first responses from government to the pandemic was to temporarily introduce an increase to the basic universal credit increase of almost 25 per cent, but even this is not enough to address the cuts evidenced by the Human Rights Watch research.
The school meals debate during the pandemic has highlighted many of the glaring inequities in Britain today.
James highlights the stark reality of the importance of “women’s work” during the pandemic, saying “Everyone can see the difference between living and dying is care.”
The pandemic has exposed Britain’s poverty of political commitment to ensuring that the country manages to meet the most basic of all human rights. The right to eat.
The left accepts that premise, the right does not.
Over the past 20 years, we have replaced welfare with poverty shaming and handouts.
James says: “Those who represent us don’t represent us well. We have to fight the people who represent us.”
The school meals scandal is a testimony to the fact that the government does not trust the nation’s parents to care for their children.
Instead, it awarded responsibility for shopping and distributing food to replace school meals to a band of private companies which profited while children go hungry.
And it forced schools to open when virologists advised that they should be closed.
The deciding factor on schools’ opening was the country’s need for an army of parents on the front line in hospitals, care homes and supermarkets.
The government has no faith in low-income parents and even less respect.
The government could easily have increased child tax credits temporarily and reinstated the right to child tax credits for more than two children, removing any need for embarrassing food parcels.
We’ve sunk nearly £300 billion into our Covid response in the UK to date, but how much of that has been spent on feeding our children?
During a pandemic, food has become a feminist issue.
While we have single mums being told to “swallow your pride” and get down to the foodbank, we are a long way away from recognising that it’s not pride that creates hunger in Britain, it’s poverty.
Central to the government’s response is the belief that this is not its problem.
Instead, it’s an opportunity for major food retailers to offload food waste and benefit from government subsidy.
We’re already paying for the foodbanks. So why not cut out the middleman and put that money straight into the pockets of hard-working families?
Instead, the relationship between poverty and parenting is translated into an accusation, a shameful label of individual inadequacy.
The narrative obscures the structural inequalities that a government should and could address with a welfare system that is fit for purpose.
Teenagers attending Leeds schools recently posted on social media of their discomfort and embarrassment at being forced to collect a measly plastic bag of carefully counted food items to replace the hot two-course meals available within schools.
The walk of shame from the assembly hall is on a par with all the other painful experiences that school affords the less affluent child.
The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson promised to “name and shame” companies providing poor food parcels for children.
He has no understanding that it’s his government that is to blame for failing to create a robust welfare system to support the country through the current crisis and beyond.
The government knows that the benefits system offers a subsistence level of existence that will only be tolerated while poverty shaming prevails. And so do we.
Had furloughed workers been forced onto universal credit, then the benefits system would have been overhauled in weeks.
Instead, the government ploughed billions into keeping business afloat while offering crumbs to impoverished families.
In 2019-20, 1.9 million people relied on foodbanks to feed their families for three days a week.
Since the pandemic, foodbanks have buckled under the demand, with centres reporting a 700 per cent increase in demand.
In East Ham, Bonny Downs Food Bank distributed food parcels to 4,000 people between April and June 2020 compared with 622 in the three months before the pandemic.
It’s the same picture across the food poverty sector.
In the UK, nearly 90 per cent of single parents are women. Almost half of children living with a single parent were in poverty before the pandemic.
Nearly a quarter of single female pensioners are poor, the highest figure in 15 years.
The latest Office for National Statistics data for the period August to October 2020 reports that unemployment among women increased from 3.6 per cent to 4.7 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.
The majority of those experiencing in work poverty in the UK are women and it’s going to deteriorate further.
The latest figures suggest that 2.5 million jobs will be lost in the coming months.
Where’s the plan when it’s no longer “business as usual”?
James says: “We need an international movement with carers acknowledged. Poverty must end for us and the communities we live in.”
James is calling for a care income for all who care, men as well as women.
It’s taken over 40 years and a pandemic for feminist debate to come full circle, to return to the roots of our oppression.
Since the pandemic, the majority of us live and work at home. Our children are educated at home by parents and grandparents.
The role of the state in domestic life has altered dramatically. And so should our thinking on “women’s work.”