Piggy banks and budget cuts

Cuts have become politically popular again, but the new thrift is targeted at the most not least vulnerable, says Clare Gould

Clare Gould, 16 December 2009

Thrift is a virtue. As the days shorten and we begin our swift decline into winter rains, politicians' thoughts have turned to self-improvement. More specifically, your self-improvement. Electioneering fodder and party political buzz words have fizzed with the rhetoric of belt-tightening, restraint and stoicism. Complacency and comfort is out; upright puritan denial in.

No longer a dirty word, the budget "cut" has taken on a glamour of its own. Now it is an article of faith and a mark of observance for politicians of all colours. The Liberal Democrats' Vince Cable is moved to nostalgia, mooning over "childhood memories of piggy banks and those stiff-backed books which recorded our first savings, filled in by bank clerks using ink pots" in the Daily Mail. Meanwhile others talk of 'values'. Politicians laud in the perspective of the comfortable middle-Englander, revelling in a return to old-fashioned virtue.

However, it may come as a surprise that the cuts are not to be directed against those who can most afford to bear them. Two debt-busting strategies have slipped under the net with little or no debate. However, the pockets being picked belong to those among the most vulnerable in society and those who should readily inspire a spirited feminist defence.

Instead, the strategies have garnered enthusiastic support. As I sit writing this the Labour conference has erupted in cheers as Gordon Brown proposes mother and baby homes for teenage mums in order to instill and teach 'responsibility'. Core to the issue of teenage pregnancy in Brown's eyes is the queue jumping for council homes. "It cannot be right," he states and is echoed by the party rank and file leaving the auditorium. Alan Johnson goes further, criticising those who do not take responsibility, as he opines: "We don't want them having children at 16...[they] cannot be provided with the keys to a castle."

The proposed cut to child benefit will have hidden costs that hit hardest at some of the most vulnerable members of our society

Perhaps he has confused the council housing department with the National Trust, yet Brown's plan extends further. "Support from the tax payer" will now mean a network of children's homes in which teenage mothers are 'supported'. The 'support' is never articulated - the lefty liberals among us may conveniently picture motherly no-nonsense types and beanbags; the more vindictive, a good dose of disapproval and moralising - a return perhaps to the unmarried mothers homes of the 1960s where coercive adoption and shaming was the norm. Thrifty and a land-grab for the obligatory supportive Daily Mail headline; a neat dovetailing of penny pinching and moralising.

Meanwhile, cuts to child benefit have been enthusiastically endorsed everywhere from the Liberal Democrat conference to Jackie Ashley's column in The Guardian. On the surface, it might seem unlikely that a feminist perspective could be found on this. However, I would argue that in targeting the income of women and carers, rather than choosing the route of general taxation, a rather cynical game is being played.

The proposed cut to child benefit will have hidden costs that hit hardest at some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Recent research has found that recessions have worrying and dangerous effects on many women in society.

Quite apart from the obvious harms in terms of job insecurity and slashed budgets for many women's services, dangerous undercurrents rip beneath. In 2008, the YWCA found that financial abuse was likely to increase during the recession and tended to exist in couples where there is "financial co-dependency". The stay-at-home mum of any class was a vulnerable group.

It is a widely-held myth that domestic violence is something that happens in lower-class, economically-struggling households. A syndrome of poverty that disappears on contact with hard cash and professional education. As if some hidden prophylactic might exist in the pages of the Financial Times or in the possession of a good university degree. However such neat, class-ridden, cookie-cutter stereotypes should be rejected.

There are those women who have been steadily cut off from the outside world, for whom their partner is as likely to be abuser as provider. Whose only contact is with the controlled circumstances of children and partner. Whose household income places them firmly in the comfortable bracket and yet who are entirely unable to provide for themselves. Who must bargain and cajole for what they and their children need, and be intimidated in the attempt. Who must account for every penny and live under the constant threat of withheld money, security or even a roof over her head. In those households where violence is not only physical, but manifests itself in iron control over the finances of the household: these women will be affected.

As child poverty rises we have forgotten that in order to help the child we must first help their carer. More often that not, this still means the mother

In such households, child benefit often gives women their only measure of economic power, and the only means of providing regular and reliable care for themselves and their children. Paid directly into the carer's own account, child benefit circumvents those who might attempt to divert it and places a little power back in the hands of these women.

Money is power. It is the ability to provide for yourself and children; to have a measure of choice; and to have the chance of directing your own course. Sometimes, it simply provides the knowledge that escape is possible.

Means-testing will not help such women, and those who do qualify may find that it places intolerable power in the hands of their violent partners. Documentation, form-filling and signatures require cooperation - a bargaining chip that extends rather than limits their abusers' power.

However, their voices are unheard in the debate. Perhaps in the feeding frenzy it is difficult for many of us to feel sorry for those whom we feel should pay more. While columnists froth over Nicola Horlicks' child benefit haul or fulminate over teenagers playing condom roulette in the hope of bagging a council house, we've taken our eyes off the game. Yet, for all the talk of fund managers' wives skedaddling to Fortnums to blow the monthly stipend of government hard-earned cash on rose petal harissa paste, the reality is rather different. Those who will be most affected are much further down the food chain. As child poverty rises we have forgotten that in order to help the child we must first help their carer. More often that not, this still means the mother.

Which makes all the talk of thrift a little distasteful. No doubt we are deeply in hock. National debt stands at staggering levels, and both interest rates and unemployment are set to rise. Our national debt now stands as a monolith that will hobble the economy and taxpayers far beyond those generations who borrowed it.

It's bad form to raid the baby's piggy bank though. Five quid and a button won't save us now.

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