This paper aims to compare the way that successive governments have responded to the needs of working parents. There will be a particular focus on women as working parents, particularly as there has been a focus over the last twenty years on women as single parents and their over-reliance on state benefits. The paper will begin with reference to the post-war welfare state and then move on to how both Conservative and Labour Government’s in recent years, have dealt with the issue of working parents’ needs.
The Welfare State
In 1942 Earnest Beveridge was concerned to combat the evils of poverty, disease and ignorance and he based his seminal report on this analysis.
When the welfare state was set up one of its primary objectives was to support families by providing a range of services that would benefit families with children along with other services such as healthcare, education and housing. However, over time traditional concepts of the family with a male breadwinner, a stay at home wife and their children have changed. An ever increasing number of lone parent families has been problematic for governments during the last two decades. Lone parent families are almost always headed by a woman who has to combine childcare with work. This inevitably results in financial problems and means that lone parent families are among the poorest in the country (Moore, 2002). With lone parent families, and more married women going out to work because they are unable to manage on a single wage, there has been an increased need for a range of childcare services. The welfare state relies on the family because it provides the foundation for the provision of health and welfare services which is why most British social policy is based on the idea of the normal family. It was this notion that prompted Margaret Thatcher’s Government to call themselves the party of the family. This was a government where the New Right Approach to policy making became very influential. The only time that government should interfere in the corporate sector (that of the employers) was if one company had a monopoly and could control prices and access to goods. This belief in a free market economy soon became evident in Government policy making and was introduced into the health and education sectors. Privatisation was the order of the day. This was a Government which maintained that people had no automatic right to welfare. It was not the business of the state to look after you, rather people needed to learn to be responsible for their own care and their own future (Giddens, 2001). The conservatives made a distinction between those people who deserved help, people with physical or learning disabilities for example, and those who were not deserving, for example the young unemployed. These people, the Government believed were not entitled to any welfare provision. It was believed that the more the state helped some people the more they would not take responsibility and help themselves, Britain, they believed was becoming a dependency culture. Only those who were really in need should receive support and free healthcare and the rest should have to pay for it. Thus the Conservatives used means testing in an attempt to determine who was entitled to welfare and who wasn’t.
Feminism and the Welfare State
Feminists recognize that the welfare state has participated in advancing the cause of women’s emancipation. At the same time they recognize that the benefits paid fo lone mothers makes it difficult for them to leave violent or unsatisfactory relationships. The state tends to confine women to traditional relationships (maybe unintentionally) and to ‘women’s’ employment roles such as nursing or teaching (Moore, 2002). Feminists start from the position that men have more power in society than do women, however not all feminists are agreed in their approaches to the family and the welfare state. Thus many feminists have an ambivalent view of the welfare state and its relationship to women.
Over the past twenty years feminists have written about, and critiqued, what they argue is the gendered nature of the welfare state and of Government policy making (Blackburn, 1995). Blackburn (ibid) maintains that there has been a lot of important work which has challenged the ideologies that lay behind the 1942 Beveridge Report. Socialist feminists in particular were critical of the fact that women’s contribution to the war effort had been ignored. She maintains however, that rather than the Beveridge Report aiming to repress women, it was more a question of having to be mindful of the market forces in operation at that time. Pascall (1986) maintains that the underlying assumptions of the Beveridge Report were that married women would stay at home and be supported by their partners. There was no prediction of the vast number of married women who would enter the work place in the years following the Second World War. Pascall further maintains that this attitude has meant resistant to reform and Britain tends to modify Beveridge’s findings rather than adhere to European rulings on equal opportunities. Pascall asserts that there is a need to put women in a picture that has been largely drawn by men (1986,p.6).
Ideas centred on a man being able to earn enough to support a family benefited the capitalist economy and the working man at the expense of women (Barratt and Mackintosh, 1980). These writers further maintain that government policy making is still centred on the idea of a family wage. This notion is embedded in British society and has been a major reason for women’s continuing inequality with men. The idea that a man was entitled to earn a family wage but women were not has meant that women have, (and still do in a number of areas) earn less than men. Furthermore, the low pay which accompanies what is often termed ‘women’s work’ means that women’s choices are restricted and their economic powers within marriage have been reduced.
Women and Policy Changes
Women have been struggling to achieve equal status with men in the labour market since the late 1960s. Women’s efforts in this area saw the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. This said that women were entitled to the same pay as men if they were doing the same job. It became illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 to discriminate against women in education, in employment, and in the provision of goods. These changes did not satisfy the European Court, which demanded a strengthening of Britain’s Equal Pay Act in 1982. There was a further amendment in 1984 which allowed that women were entitled to the same pay as men in their organizations. This rested on women being able to prove that their work involved the same kinds of decision making and skills as those carried out by men. It also meant that they should have equal access and an equal chance for promotion to that of men.
Until the late 1980s girls were less likely than boys to achieve the requisite number of A levels to enter university. In recent years there have been concerns about the growing underachievement of boys compared to girls. Girls are matching or exceeding boys across the curriculum and thus there are more women entering higher education. This does not, however, give them much advantage in the job market where they are disadvantaged in comparison with males who have the same qualification levels ( Epstein, et al, 1998).
Moore (2002), however, maintains that things are changing, men have more domestic responsibility than they did 20 years ago and also a much greater involvement with their children than in the past. The government has recognized this through their introduction of parental leave. In the past only mothers were entitled to such leave. Parental leaves means that both parents can take legitimate time off, but in many cases men’s leave is unpaid and so often not taken.
Women in the Workplace
Census figures for 1991 tend to suggest that at the time, the workforce was 47% women. Needless to say there were regional and ethnic variations and single women were more likely to be in paid work than married women. (Abbott and Tyler, 1995). maintain that this is due to the fact that women’s participation in the labour market is affected by their domestic responsibilities.Women spend time out of the labour market when they have young children and then may work part time while children are at school. Many women do not return to full employment until their children are older. There growing number of women in the workplace has resulted in more flexibility in working arrangements to accommodate that. Crompton (1997) maintains that much of this springs from the increase in the number of part-time jobs available. Millar (1993) states that flexible working may look encouraging in terms of women’s visibility in paid work, but it also means that there are more women living in poverty than ever before. Most of these women are part-time and flexible workers. The only interest such flexibility serves is that of the employer because there is a need to be more competitive and to reduce labour costs while at the same time expecting greater worker productivity (Giddens,2001). The introduction, in the 1970s, of family credit was a move to encourage more people to go back to work. Those with low paying jobs would receive payments from the state through family credit. Critics of this policy argued that although it did provide low income families with some extra money it provided no incentive for low paying employers to increase wages.
Changing Policy: The Third Way
New Labour came into power in 1997. They offered a ‘third way’ approach. It is really an updated model of the original welfare state with new right influences. One of its concepts is o rely on the importance of successful businesses to bring in the wealth for the rest of society and to increase employment levels. It also argues for an end to discrimination based on gender roles and on race, despite this it is still a party that holds to the concept of the traditional family. The present government promotes a more integrated approach to policy making thus the number of areas having an effect on benefits has been increased. Benefits are no longer the sole preserve of the Department for Work and Pensions, the Inland Revenue and the treasury have also become important providers with tax credit schemes being used to offer an alternative method of social protection.
Family Credit was replaced by Working Families’ Tax Credits and Children’s Tax Credits in April 2001. These were meant to guarantee families a minimum weekly income. New Labour have increased maternity grants, promised greater help with childcare, and believe that these methods will help bring British families out of the poverty trap (Moore, 2002).
Despite these policy changes there are a number of disadvantages that parents, and particularly women, face when it comes to paid work. While some jobs are seen as offering more flexibility working part-time, Crompton (1997) argues that this can also put women at a disadvantage as it is generally lower paid, has less job security and less opportunity for promotion. Although child care arrangements do have an effect on women’s working patterns, lack of proper child care is not the only reason women do not participate more fully in the workplace. For example, while the number of women in work has continued to rise only a third of single mothers with young children are economically active (HMSO, 1999). Despite Government initiatives such as Sure Start Centres, most lone mothers may not have sufficient extra support to return to the workplace, or they may only be offered low paid work which may leave them worse off than they were on benefits.
Moore (2002), however, maintains that although women have been discriminated against in policy making, things are changing, men have more domestic responsibility than they did 20 years ago and also a much greater involvement with their children than in the past. The government has recognized this through their introduction of parental leave. In the past only mothers were entitled to such leave. Parental leaves means that both parents can take legitimate time off, but in many cases men’s leave is unpaid and so often not taken. Having said this, according to the Guardian (15/12/1999) 50% of people said that the introduction of parental leave would increase their loyalty to their employers, There has been some redistribution of resources under Labour but their policies still have a lot of drawbacks. Job creation schemes have not really helped the situation and families in receipt of working tax credits can end up worse off than they were when they were unemployed. Changes in their hours and mistakes made by those who pay these credits has caused an uproar in the media and financial problems for many families as their money is stopped without any reason being given or any notice. Therefore such policies can be double-edged.
This paper has attempted to give some idea of the policies that relate to working parents and their children. The New Right approach was to bring in means testing and family credit and basically assume that people’s families should help them out. As such the Conservative Government of the 1980s and ‘90s did little to address the needs of working parents.
New Labour on the other hand has specifically target policies at the family but some of their policy making has a double edge. Critics regard New Labour’s efforts at change as an indistinct set of policies that harks back to old labour but swings to the right in its ideology. The introduction of working family tax credit has been a double edged sword with a huge amount of overpayments. Although New Labour has attempted to introduce more and better childcare, what there is, is still insufficient and exorbitantly expensive. It might therefore be concluded that successive Governments tend to hold on to outdated notions of the family and of welfare and that these work against the interests of working families.
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