JK Rowling tells the government: “Stop picking on the poor!”

September 18, 2013

JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels and President of the single parent group Gingerbread, has written on the group’s website that she is “prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life.”

She is sick of the “skiver vs striver” oratory from the government. She remembers her own experience of being a single parent on benefits as one when she experienced patronisation and stigmatisation. She writes:

My overriding memory of that time is the slowly evaporating sense of self-esteem, not because I was filing or typing – there was dignity in earning money, however I was doing it – but because it was slowly dawning on me that I was now defined, in the eyes of many, by something I had never chosen. I was a Single Parent, and a Single Parent On Benefits to boot. Patronage was almost as hard to bear as stigmatisation. I remember the woman who visited the church one day when I was working there who kept referring to me, in my hearing, as The Unmarried Mother. I was half annoyed, half amused: unmarried mother? Ought I to be allowed in a church at all? Did she see me in terms of some Victorian painting: The Fallen Woman, Filing, perhaps?

Single parents were not popular in certain sectors of the establishment or media in the mid-nineties. I could not raise a smile over the government minister of the time singing a merry ditty about ‘young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue.’ Newspaper articles discussed single mothers in terms of broken families and anti-social teenagers. However defiant I might feel about the jobs I was doing round the clock (full-time mother, part-time worker, secret novelist), constant bombardment with words like ‘scrounger’ has a deeply corrosive effect. Assumptions made about your morals, your motives for bringing your child into the world or your fitness to raise that child cut to the core of who you are.

Then came the literary success – and the stigmatisation still remained.

I became Single Parent Writes Award-Winning Children’s Book/Earns Record American Advance/Gets Film Deal. One of the first journalists to interview me asked me whether I hadn’t felt I ought to be out looking for a job rather than ‘sitting at home writing a novel.’ By some miracle I resisted the almost overwhelming temptation to punch him and subsequently decided to channel my frustration a little more positively by becoming a Patron of what was then called the National Council for One Parent Families (now Gingerbread).

A Gingerbread survey in 2011 found that 87% of single parents think there is a stigma around single parenthood that needs to be challenged and one in three say that they have personally experienced it. Rowling finds the “skivers vs strivers” rhetoric particularly offensive when it comes to single parents, who are already working around the clock to care for their children. Such rhetoric drains confidence and self-esteem from those who desperately want to get back into the job market.

Unfortunately, the stigmatisation and the “skivers vs skivers” rhetoric isn’t going away any time soon – it seems to underpin most of the government’s public spending plans. At the moment, a single woman’s benefit is affected if she has children; but soon, when the government’s Universal Benefit comes into effect, a single mother will get the same benefit as a single woman with no children. And this is just one aspect of the government’s way of thinking. As Rowling puts it:

A statement by a government minister late last year that ‘people who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks – they’ve got least to lose’ speaks to a profound disconnect with people struggling to keep their heads above water. In some cases – and I was once one of those cases – what you might lose is enough food to eat, a roof over your head: the fundamentals of life and existence, magnified a million-fold when it is your child’s health and security you stand to lose.

Go check out Rowling’s piece, here. And you can join the Gingerbread campaign to Make it work for single parents and help push for realistic policy changes that will help single parents find decent jobs that provide for their families.

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