Compelling teen mothers to work could be Labour's worst social policy idea yet
by Julia Margo
One of the themes to emerge from debates last week about the Karen Matthews/Baby P/shocking state of social services scandals was the ongoing saga of Britain's teenage birth rate, or more precisely the so-called benefit claiming class of teenage single mothers who suck up state resources and services, do not work, but procreate freely and supposedly by active choice: Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe and only ten per cent of teenage mothers stay with the father of their child. By Julia Margo, Demos
Teenage parenthood is associated with a host of negative experiences for children: abuse and neglect are more likely to happen in households headed by a young single mother, children are more likely to be depressed, anxious and to do less well at school. But it is the propensity of their mothers to be reliant on state benefits that has captured the imagination of the political class this week.
James Purnell has suggested that the government will move to end the benefit culture surrounding single mothers and more or less compel them to work or undertake training.
I feel like I am writing in the 1980s, but surely everyone knows that people who become single parents as teenagers are not the wily benefit cheats they are portrayed to be but more often ill-informed teens who have nothing better to do with their lives and realistically can aspire to little more. And am I alone in thinking that these girls would probably greatly appreciate the emotional and material support of a partner?
I like the idea that the government will offer teenage mothers opportunities thus far denied to most of them (education and training), but not if it is framed in terms of getting them off their lazy bottoms.
Teen parenthood is commonly associated with having had a poor educational background and a lack of opportunities or eye-opening, developmental experiences such as travel (by which I do not mean only foreign travel but even moving much beyond the confines of a deprived and uninspiring local area). It is also associated with having experienced parental neglect or other aspects of poor parenting. If this sounds woolly and lefty it is also supported by hard econometric analysis: if politicians choose to ignore the evidence because it does not fit a popular argument or appears patronising that is their fatal error.
So essentially we are talking about a group of girls who often lack the capacity to get good jobs, missing not just the physical requirements of qualifications, skills and accessible local labour markets, but the less tangible essentials of self-confidence, supportive parents and wider social networks (things which also help people to be good parents).
Is a more interventionist Job Centre Plus and benefit conditionality really going to plug this capability gap?
Teen pregnancy is one of the few policy areas in which genuine silver bullets exist. We could for instance 'offer' the contraceptive jab, which lasts for three years, to all 16 year old girls in the country: bam we would have abolished teen pregnancy. But this does not mean these girls can or will study or work instead.
We could compel them to work, as Purnell suggests: simply make it impossible to claim benefits without evidence of job-seeking, stipulate time limits for claiming and cut off support for those in breach of this rule. Quite clearly it is their children who will suffer.
I do not mean to paint these girls as hopeless cases. But are we forgetting why we on the left fought for more state support for the parents of deprived children in the first place? I do not think the debate should be about how we compel teenage mothers to work rather than exist on benefits, but rather how we prevent teen parenthood from being a negative for the parent and child. It is a negative mostly because it is a flag for material and social deprivation, two things which make being a successful parent - and holding a relationship together - much more difficult. The worklessness aspect is merely part of this, not its cause.
Some teenagers make excellent parents and have good jobs. These are the ones who have strong social networks, supportive parents, an engaged partner and an education which enables them to work and progress their skills and experience in the labour market and so provide for their children.
We cannot give teenage mothers better parents or partners but we can help them to be better parents, by investing more in Sure Start parenting programmes and schemes such as Nurse-Family Partnerships which are proven to improve parenting in teen parent families.
We can provide free and high quality childcare for children up to school starting age so that mothers can genuinely work – it is ridiculous to claim that they could do so now, without such support.
We can offer more rounded education in schools about how to run a home, a relationship, a family.
We can radically reform Job Centres so that staff are better at helping and supporting people into jobs – at the moment their record is abysmal.
We can improve social services, as the government is also suggesting, so that it provides meaningful help and protection to children and families. And we can look at ways to more actively engage fathers in their children's upbringing - Australia's version of our Child Support Agency is one model we could explore - so that this anarchic debate moves on from being just about young women and their feckless behaviour. Where are all the men responsible for these children anyway?
We cannot simply make people work when they lack the support and opportunity to do so.