Archive | January, 2016

Hard-working families or hard work in families?

11 Jan

We all know how much the government loves ‘hard-working families’ – during the election campaign you could place the phrase on your buzzword bingo card and be sure to contribute to a full house most days. And in the months since, with the spending review and the ongoing austerity programme, few days go by without reference to hard-working families, who are ‘doing the right thing’ and being rewarded for it with plaudits and ‘incentives’ in policies.

As for family and relationship support, David Cameron has made a speech today about enhanced funding for counselling for couples, and the launch of a more universal provision of parenting classes. He says that parenting is ‘the most important job we’ll ever have’ – and yet the work that goes on inside families – which means that our children and other loved ones are fed, clothed, nurtured, and supported to be useful members of society in their turn – does not seem to be the main concern here. There’s a bit of talk about discipline and control of behaviour, but the Prime Minister’s focus appears to be primarily economic – he goes on to say that:

‘Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one. Children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those whose families stay together. That’s why strengthening families is at the heart of our agenda.’

So families are front and centre because they are a defence against poverty, not because functioning relationships are valuable in themselves? The cynic might say that families are to be buttressed piecemeal, to deal better with the shrinkage in public services which have been deeply cut …

It’s striking that the language around families has become so professionalised – parenting is a ‘job’ encompassing skills or services – ‘welfare, education and counselling’ – the word ‘care’ does not seem to have much prominence here. And yet caring is at the heart of the hard work that goes on inside families, it’s what keeps everybody going, and what enables people to go out into the world and do other useful things. You cannot resign from parenthood – nor are you promoted for doing it well. So it’s not a typical job at all. It’s about building and sustaining relationships over time. Something that caring may have in common with jobs in the labour market is that it’s a lot easier to put up with the bad days if you have enough money. Poverty makes the strains of caring more difficult to bear, and caring needs to be accommodated alongside paid work. If all the talk around families is about jobs, caring gets overlooked. That’s ironic, as many would say it’s what makes being in families worthwhile.

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