Maternity Allowance: A Benefit from Another Time

I’ve recently left work at the Citizens Advice Bureau to take maternity leave. My work is primarily in benefits advice and I am a huge benefits geek. It’s a combination of the intellectual exercise of manipulating regulations along with the pleasing sense of mastery over a system that appears all powerful and capricious when you are on the other end of it. I love it.

One interesting thing about the benefit system is that every government since its inception has tinkered with it to some degree and marked it with its own ideology, so that the regulations resemble rock strata, each layer reflecting the social narrative of its time; the prevalent views about unemployment, the social contract and the minimum standards of dignity which citizens should be afforded.
The majority of benefits claimants I come across at work are dealing with the most modern form of the system, the means tested benefits. Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance (the recent replacement for Incapacity Benefit) Housing Benefit and so on.
The internal logic of these benefits is brutal. Apart from being set at (no exaggeration) starvation level, they tend to be subject to draconian and vicious entitlement conditions. So if you are claiming on the basis of illness, you had better be so ill you can hardly function. If you are claiming on the basis of unemployment, you will be made to show exactly what you have been doing to look for work.
The level of interrogation set against the amount of help, is in itself, a humiliation and speaks volumes about the attitudes of those who set the system up.
You work with this system everyday and you get inured to it. You learn its internal logic to better help others and, god help you, you internalise parts of it yourself. You start thinking that perhaps someone with agoraphobia should be expected to do a bit of piece work from home. You start believing that even with back pain; perhaps you should struggle in to work. Everyone seems to have back pain and depression these days after all and people should just toughen up.
I get thoughts like that creeping into my head occasionally and then I get the flu and experience perhaps one tiny fraction of what someone with a chronic condition goes through every day and I call in sick with no problems at all, because I am not on benefits and the brutal logic of the system does not apply to me.
I try to hang onto this thought and use these occasions to remind myself that the logic of the system is wrong, wrong, wrong. People deserve dignity and comfort and some decent standard of living and no one should be pressured to work if they are not able to do so.
Going on maternity leave was like that writ large. I’m lucky enough to have built up enough National Insurance Contributions to receive Maternity Allowance. Remember the rock strata? Maternity Allowance is laid down in ancient times, representing a different version of the social contract altogether. An older version of the welfare state where everyone pays in and everyone draws out. When circumstances require them to, without shame and with no conditions attached, other than the condition of having paid the contributions in the first place.
(I’m not sure when Maternity Allowance was introduced, but as a contributions based benefit the legal principles governing it can be traced to the National Insurance Act 1911 and to the National Insurance Act 1946, following the Beveridge Report.)
I went off for maternity leave a little earlier than originally planned. I had been wildly over optimistic about the amount of time I would be able to keep going and found myself at 36 weeks, emotionally volatile, knackered and, in all fairness, not a great deal of use to my employer.
I turned up at the midwifes all red faced and puffy eyed because negotiating with (my own) housing association about a water tank had somehow led to a crying jag two hours long. I was firmly advised to stop work. This turned out to be excellent advice and I am now much better, thank you for asking. If you don’t want to be stressed, stop going to where the stress comes from. Works a treat.
The point is though, that even though my symptoms felt impossible for me and even though a health professional advised me to leave work, by modern benefits standards they were nothing. Take pregnancy out of the equation and what are you left with? Anxiety and Fatigue. Trust me that is not getting you anywhere at an Employment and Support Allowance tribunal. And a tribunal is where you will end up because really, no one is being awarded Employment and Support Allowance first time these days.
And yet I walked into work, stated that I was leaving early and met with no resistance. I filled out a form, sent it back and received £138 per week with some delay but no major difficulty. My need not to be at work was not questioned for an instant.
My point is that you still come across these bits of the welfare state sometimes. The bits that remain in the lower strata. The bits that are humanitarian and still work. You come these bits and you realise how low our expectations have become and how much has been lost.

Riding the waves

Feminism is in flux these days.

As the waves lap at the shore, generational differences are crashing into one another and creating a lot of white water. I’m not old enough to remember the start of the second wave, but I am almost certain that there would have been conflict between first wavers who concentrated on the political and legal situation of women, and the next generation who explored the social and sexual. Not, of course, that these are necessarily in conflict: the legal framework of any group defines its social position, and indeed it was only at the start of the second wave that the Equal Pay act was introduced, and well into it before women got the right of independent taxation.

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On Defeating the Kyriarchy (post 3/3)

Consciousness raising is critical to any attempts to overcome kyriarchical thinking, but it needs re-envisaged. Traditional consciousness raising of the type which became popular during second wave feminism concentrated on examining the oppressions to which the recessive group were subject highlighting to other members of the group their oppression. It is for the radical to examine their own oppressive practices and behaviours. As a member of a privileged group – whatever that privilege may be in any particular circumstances – it can be both an enlightening and humbling experience to examine the oppression which you perpetuate. Developing an oppositional consciousness, allying ourselves with the oppressed and encouraging others to do likewise is a more productive strategy than consistently fighting the other from a position of weakness.
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On Defeating the Kyriarchy (post 2/3)

Within each of the identity based oppressions there are a number of different strategies used to attempt to overcome them.  At its most fundamental is consciousness raising, alerting members of the oppressed community imbibed with the its values to the ways in which it oppresses them to encourage them to challenge and fight against it.   Conciousness raising is a critical issue and one which should not be underestimated.  From birth we are shaped by the society in which we are born into.  That society is not universally experienced, a Black child born to Black lesbian parents in a Black dominated suburb will experience the kyriarchy differently from a white child born to a married couple in the same community, never the less the dominant values, transmitted through mass media, legal governance and state ideological apparatuses operate directly on the sense of self, while interactions with others, also subject to the same social effects and each with individual experiences of their own identity, their immediate environmental identity and the identity of their social community.
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