Return of the breadwinner: how government reforms are attacking social autonomy

If there is one thing this government really does not and has made no effort to understand, it is the concept of autonomy.

What is autonomy? The concept of independence, freedom, the right to make decisions about yourself and the things which happen to you. It has been totally overlooked in changes to disability benefits which seek to make people financially dependent on carers – totally blind to the possibility that abuse is a human demon which may be aggravated by poverty but which cuts all the way across the class system. Certainly blind to the idea that a disability should not be something which takes away your power to make decisions about your life: that as well as being physically dependent on others in terms of mobility you should not also be deprived the capital to make choices on a day-to-day basis.

In a similar way, the ending of universal child benefits may seem fair in the sense that it does not give to those who already have a great deal of money at the expense of spending funds elsewhere. However, this should also be viewed quite critically – not just because universal benefits encourage popular support of welfare, but also from an equality point of view, it may represent a cutting off of agency for women who, while we may see them as pampered, still represent part of the equality battle in terms of what society teaches about access to control of resources.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, huge amounts of reform which are taking place at the moment are subtley (or not so subtley) pushing us backwards as a society towards norms of male breadwinners and dependent housewives: whilst the child benefits cut off will impact at the top, the big reverberations of the changes will happen strongest at the bottom, where poverty and cultural hoplessness in the face of mass unemployment cut off access to education and the empowerment it brings. Changes to working tax credits – which it has been revealed have unsurprisingly not resulted in employers magicking up extra hours to push part time staff up to the 24 hour cut off, leaving 200K low income families worse off – are seemingly totally oblivious to the idea that a family where paid employment is shared amongst partners is a situation far more conducive to equality in terms of access to capital and therefore decision making than a push back to a dominant earner model.

A society which regresses to a model of supporters and the supported – pushing access of capital from a state recognition of need to a domestic choice of allowance – is not a society which encourages social participation, citizenship, or ultimately progress. A society which denies autonomy denies equality, and denies freedom. It is a sad indicator of the value we put on human existence, equating worth to usefulness to the powerful. It is something we should be watching very carefully, and something which is going to lead to some very big battles.


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