Joe Hendren

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The legacy of neo-liberalism on family life - some thoughts from Blackball

I wrote most of the following post around three weeks ago, and was always intending to go back and finish it. I thought it might be an opportune time after seeing a related item on the news tonight.

A neonatal paediatrician is warning parents to do all they can to avoid putting their young children in daycare, saying it could permanently harm their developing brains. Dr Simon Rowley advocates for a parent to stay home with children in the early years if they can. He cites research looking at the hormone cortisol that found 80% of children in daycare become more stressed during the day, with toddlers showing the highest levels of stress.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Sarah Farquhar has taken issue with Dr Rowley .
"It's going back to the times of women being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. That's not healthy for children and it's not healthy for women . . . making parents feel guilty about their choices is not the way to go."
The Early Childhood Council also happens to be protecting its market - as an organisation representing private childcare centres. Kids are their source of cash.

Now its possible that Dr Rowley is running a socially conservative agenda here, particularly when he blames the social policies of Helen Clark, and many social conservatives demonise Clark. Yet to leave the issue there I think does the left a disservice, as it may leave empty political ground for socially conservative politicians if the left is not seen to be engaging with the issues in a deeper way.

What got me thinking about this was a very interesting discussion during the Blackball May Day celebrations earlier this year. We looked at the legacy of neo-liberalism in New Zealand, with a focus on its affect on family life.

I am greatly thankful to my fellow participants for helping me think about the issues in new ways.
The Blackball Working Class History Project now has a blog.

This year I attended the May Day celebrations in Blackball. It was an enjoyable and engaging weekend. As 2008 was the 100th anniversary of the famous Blackball miners strike, the numbers were smaller in 2009, but this allowed the issues to be covered in greater depth.

On the Saturday morning a forum was held on The Legacy of Neo-Liberalism. Many people prepared provocations for the forum in order to start the discussion. Rather than focus on economics and the undemocratic nature of how neo-liberalism was forced on the electorate, many people spoke of the legacy of neo-liberalism on families and family life.

It is great to see many of these contributions from the forum now appearing online. Paul Manuder has written a rundown of the weekend. Sandra and others highlighted the punative attitude of many government departments.

"I’ve got a friend in Greymouth who cares for her baby granddaughter, her ten year old son and her suicidal adult son. Can someone tell me why this woman, this mother, grandmother, carer of our most vulnerable, is being badgered by WINZ to get paying employment?"

I believe part of the explanation for this lies with the Social Security Amendment Act passed by the last Labour Government. This Act changed the whole purpose of the Act famously passed by Michael Joseph Savage in 1938. Rather than a focus on the welfare of the community, the focus came on getting a job - any job - as the only legitimate form of social assistance. I suggested Savage would be turning in his grave if he knew about these changes.

To return to the focus on the impact of neo-liberalism on family life, it was interesting that many saw the lack of family time due to financial pressure as a key problem. For example, a local teacher, Te Whaea Ireland saw many children with a desperate need for one on one contact with adults. Sandra summarised Te Whaea's comments like this.

"Parents love their children but the children are stressed. Families are stressed through everyone working long hours to survive economically. Children are arriving at school earlier, then there’s after school care, there’s no adult with the time to help with homework, no time for mooching- that stress-free space which generates self management, relatedness, creativity etc. The family is no longer functioning as a nurturing unit. She saw among her peer group, the stress in terms of a young couple trying to acquire a home and to have a family. She saw the traditional homemaker, once gender equality is accepted, as a valid and vital role in society."

It ought to be stressed that Te Whaea was not advocating a socially conservative agenda, as she assumes the acceptance of gender equity. Freedom and equity should aim to give people greater choices. The issue is that due to financial pressure parents no longer have the choice whether they wish to work OR be a homemaker.

Essentially, over the past 50 years employers have used the rightful work aspirations of women to halve 'real' family incomes - double incomes are now required to raise families in most cases. The Employment Contracts Act made the situation worse. I do not wish to go back to the 1950s here - what I am highlighting is how New Zealand employers and their right wing friends have used this societal change to their own economic advantage.

In terms of policy responses the following might be a useful starting point. The challenge of the left is not only to announce such policies but to demonstrate how they are relevant to the issues currently facing families. I am not sure the left has done so yet, or as effectively as it might.
  • A new industrial relations framework which delivers a fairer share of company profits to families (the new Australian legislation might be worth looking at - particularly if we are serious about a real CER that is not limited to just what the business community wants)
  • A minimum wage set at two thirds of the average wage (sign the Unite petition)
  • Universal Basic Income (which would recognise the currently unpaid work of homemakers)
  • A year or more of paid parental leave.
  • More research on children's experiences on daycare - are there ways to make it less stressful and more confortable for the kids?
I very much welcome comments on this post, as I feel as if I am still working out the issues as I go.

During the Blackball forum I also suggested that the Clark Labour Government may be seen by future historians as playing a key role in embedding neo-liberalism as it deliberately avoided changing any of the neo-liberal legislation or the aggressive 'free trade' policies of the forth Labour Government. Despite the country voting left in 1999, the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Finance Act, the State Sector Act and a strict orthodoxy of 'balanced budgets' remained. Even after nine years. Indeed it is significant that in his valedictory speech the former Labour Finance Minister Michael Cullen spoke of his pride in pursuing free trade agreements and maintaining a socially progressive but fiscally conservative party.

I respected Cullen's intellect and his wit a great deal, but I always thought his views on the inevitability and the desirability of the WTO version of the global market were simply pollyanna. While he did renationalise the railways, this was only after costing the country millions by entering into a failed public-private partnership with Toll Holdings in 2004. In 2003 he had the opportunity buy the railways on the cheap and to tell Toll to noddy off, but did not do so.

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At 9:31 pm, Blogger Green Tea said...

I can recall a collegue I worked with who'd just become a father at Christmas time. He requested around two weeks annual leave to spend time with his wife and new son, but because it was Christmas time (the busiest and highest sale period for retail) his leave was declined. Effectively the business was saying his profitability is more important than him spending time with his family.

The neo-liberal/capitalism model is largely incompatable with family life. This is because the bottom line in this model is profit regardless of anything else. As long as parents are 'productive' (i.e. producing profits for those with the capital) then the system is happy. Then they expect the state to clean up the side effects, but at the same time demand they pay less tax giving the state even less resources with to mop up the mess.

Whats wrong with a 30 hour working week? 3 hours in the morning, 3 hours in the afternoon, 5 days a week. This could give everyone more time to put into the things that matter, such as family life. But of course we'd have cries of all the lost productivity blah blah blah etc.

We need to show business that yes its ok for them to trade and make a (modest) profit, but that they also need to give back by acknowledging that we need a decent livable wage, time to spend with family, and care when we're no longer 'productive'. Its a trade off - we let them profit, they look after us. With neoliberalsim its "you let us profit, thats it."

At 10:07 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

Thanks Green Tea

Assuming this happened after paid parental leave came into effect your colleague should have been entitled to two weeks unpaid parental leave. Employers have a legal obligation to inform employees of their rights. If an employer says no, DOL assisted mediation and the Employment Relations authority are options. As is joining a retail union.

I also support a shorter working week - but I am aware the 35 hour working week in France has caused a few unforseen issues. Perhaps a first step would be reclaiming and enforcing a 40 hour week in order that we are not celebrating the 8 hour day on Labour day even though it no longer exists for many people.

If unemployment climbs over 8-10% a shorter working week may become an easier issue to win.

At 10:20 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

Perhaps I went a bit overboard to say that real incomes have halved - I should clarify I was thinking of both the value of wages in real terms (ie inflation adjusted) and effective purchasing power/living costs. It difficult to get stats on this as there are so many variables. I was also only thinking of male incomes - female incomes have increased since the 1950s thankfully.

This article by Keith Rankin shows how real wages have declined. It covers the period til the early 1990s

The original basis for my claim was provision in the 1936 Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Act set wages (ie awards) in order that the male breadwinner could support a wife and three children in a 'reasonable standard of comfort'. Wages are no longer set with the expectation that those earning a salary will be supporting others.

In terms of wage setting now, having children is regarded as similar to owning a fancy car - individuals can chose to have it if the can afford it. There are no allowances made for the needs of the kids.

At 8:55 pm, Blogger Sandra Quick said...

Thanks Joe. I really enjoyed reading this post. Something I have also been thinking about since Mayday weekend is the tension between the union fight for a 'family wage' and the ethical imperative that women's financial contributions to a household be acknowledged, valued and free from prejudice. When the unions in 19th century Australia were fighting for a family wage, women's work was deliberately hidden.

From another angle but related to this topic, I watch the roll out of market forces over every aspect of our lives spread well beyond the monetising of raising young children (for it is surely possible to argue that that is what child care centres do, turn young children into a product) to a distrust of any skills and experiences a family can offer children. A recent Christchurch Press article purported to explore the value of after school activities such as ballet, drama and music lessons to school age children. The contrast was drawn only with children who are at home glued to a computer or television screen. Nowhere in the article was it acknowledged that parents can facilitate 'constructive' activities within the home after school. *That* does not make money. *That* brings children back into the family instead of making them into cash cows. Confident parents are dangerous - they can challenge the state and they can ignore the advertising which companies use to ply their brainswashing wares. Our governmetns past and present claim they want confident and well educated parents but I suspect that they prefer quite the opposite.

At 12:10 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of the premises of pre-school childcare (and after hours childcare for school age children) are complete rubbish.

The idea that by dropping kids off in childcare, a woman 'returns to the workforce' is a myth.

Most childcare workers are women, as are most stay-at-home caregivers. So when a caregiver returns to paid work by using childcare (ie women workers), the number of women in the 'employed' workforce rises. But all we have really done is swap 1 woman worker for another woman worker.

The only way it makes fiscal sense, is because most childcare workers are near minimum wage earners. This creates a pay differential with mothers returning to the workforce, which is what makes it 'worthwhile' for mothers to go into paid work.

So, childcare is really just economic exploitation! Parents don't use childcare if they earn less than the childcare workers, because then returning to the workforce is a net cost to them! (which is why most low income folks don't use childcare - its just not worth it financially).

Note that is irrespective of whether it is the mother or father who was the caregiver returning to work (its just that such caregivers are overwhelmingly women).

The only 'plus' to childcare is it allows a (normally female) caregiver to get greater job satisfaction & stretch their mind, etc. But in doing so, they lock another (normally female) worker into the (supposedly) mind-numbing job of looking after children.

So, childcare really is totally about economic exploitation.

Note - equality of the sexes in work is a good thing (duh!) - none of the above is affected by which caregiver (mother or father) returns to paid work. It's just that most caregivers are initially the mothers.

But the above argument is about the injustice of the childcare myth - it is 'fairer to get all parents into paid work and their kids in childcare'.

Thoughts/howls of outrage?


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