The welfare state was a legacy of the second world war. After the misery of the great depression and the slaughter that followed, people demanded change: the welfare of people, including working-class people, was to be central. Millions demanded socialism – and the welfare state was what we got. From 1951 to 1979 the Tories were cautious, some even embracing the civilizing influence of "entitlement": every human being's right not to starve, at least in the UK.
The cuts announced by George Osborne yesterday aim once again to make market forces rather than human beings the absolute social and economic priority, throwing us back to the inter-war years of deprivation.
One crucial advance had been that universal family allowance (now child benefit) acknowledged mothers as vital workers who produced the human race. As soon as suffrage was won, feminist Eleanor Rathbone, from a Liverpool anti-slavery family, had worked tirelessly to establish that mothers and children were entitled to an income independent of what men earned – or didn't earn. It would recognize the needs of children and the work and financial autonomy of their careers. Family allowance would redress the gross injustice of the penniless mother who had been economically "disinherited". Mothers and children, though unwaged, were, after all, most of the population.
Rathbone fought for that income to be universal: a mother of any class was entitled to payment for caring work; it was a right, not a charity. But Rathbone expected that this would guarantee women's financial independence, and was deeply disappointed.
As women have had to focus on other routes to financial independence over the years, the basic work of the reproduction of the human race has plunged as a social priority. Some feminists did very well out of competing on the market in a man's world. Housework was what their mothers did; they were above that. Their careers could pay for the help of other (lower-waged) women as nannies and cleaners.
Rathbone, on the other hand, knew that: "a people accustomed to measure values in terms of money will persist, even against the evidence of their own eyes, in thinking meanly of any kind of service on which a low price is set and still more meanly of the kind of service which is given for nothing".
Thatcher's "There is no such thing as society" and her hatred for "the culture of entitlement" has determined social policy since 1979. As soon as he came in, Blair called single mothers "workless", and cut one-parent benefit. The job of raising children, it seems, was a time-waster. This framed the recent Welfare Reform Act, which abolished income support, the benefit that recognized mothers' unwaged work, and in crucial respects frames the present cuts. Harriet Harman presented the one-parent cut; Yvette Cooper welfare reform. With what credibility can they oppose Tory cuts?
It has been noted that families with children will bear the brunt of cuts, while the childless two-income family will not. It is the career who will carry the heaviest load because she has the greater responsibility. And not only for children who will lose education and other allowances, but for relatives with disabilities and pensioner parents whose local services will either be directly cut or contracted out, to be done by workers paid slave wages not to care, but to meet targets.
Mothers had escaped dependence by taking jobs as teachers, librarians, and other public sector jobs. At the same time, 60.3% of the two million single parents had been forced out to jobs (up from 44.7% in 1997) – even breastfeeding mothers are having to submit to work-focused interviews. Indeed the number of stay-at-home mothers has reached an all-time low as families struggled to make ends meet. Most of these women will be sent home by the cuts. Now what?
Their fate and that of children is unrealistically disconnected, and in any case children's wellbeing is never a consideration. There is little concern for what children are eating (ask Jamie Oliver); or for how many leave school illiterate; or how many are forced to be careers for disabled parents or for siblings when parents are out at work. Nor is child poverty addressed as a tragic scandal, which is why the looming increased impoverishment is not the shock it should be.
Structural adjustment policies, that is, the privatization and cuts which devastated the developing world in the 80s and 90s, were based on women taking on even more unwaged work or going without – even when it meant starvation. In much the same way, the "big society" plans to drive women to replace decimated services with unwaged work. Our work as careers is again counted on, but never counted.
The cuts are premised on the absurd assumption that market forces are beyond human control. What happened to the free time that technology, for which we suffered unemployment and displacement, was to enable? We reject the prevailing ethos that parents spending time, and society spending resources, on caring is an unaffordable luxury, but obscene salaries, bonuses and weapons are not. Will we have to fight this out as they're doing in France?