The Sunday Times

March 7th, 2010

Unwanted men, we need you to curb the welfare Amazons

Are men surplus to requirements? The answer, after more than half a century of feminism and the welfare state, depends largely on class. Men from the employable and educated classes are still in strong demand among women. But much lower down the socioeconomic scale, among the least privileged, men have become — or have come to seem — entirely optional.

Already we have what the tabloid newspapers call an epidemic of single motherhood — young women who have chosen to have babies on welfare, without husbands or boyfriends. One in four mothers is single and more than half of these lone mothers have never lived with a man and survive on welfare.

As many of these women become grandmothers, a new pattern has emerged of three generations of mothers without a man in the house — lone granny, lone mum and fatherless children, all expecting the state to stand in for daddy, as of right. These women are not so much welfare queens as matriarchal dynasties of welfare Amazons.

In a study presented to the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), the sociologist Geoff Dench argues from the evidence of British Social Attitudes surveys since 1983 that there is a growing number of such extended man-free families: “Three-generation lone-mother families — extended families without men — are developing a new family subculture which involves little paid work.”

The culture is passed on, as you might expect. Lone grannies are significantly more likely to have lone and workless daughters than grannies with husbands or employment, and the same is true of their daughters’ daughters. Baby daughters (and baby sons, too) are imbibing with their mother’s milk the idea that men, like jobs, are largely unnecessary in any serious sense.

The problem with this new type of extended family, Dench says, is that it is not self-sustaining but tends to be parasitic on conventional families in the rest of society. In fact, it appears to lead inexorably to the nightmare of an unproductive dependent underclass.

Clearly one of the worst problems with such a subculture is that although it’s not self-sustaining it has a powerful tendency to replicate itself. A boy in such an environment who grows up without a father figure is much less likely — for many well documented reasons — to turn into the sort of young man a girl could see as a desirable husband. A girl who grows up without a father never learns how important a man could be in her own child’s life. She will not see her mother negotiating an adult relationship with a male companion, so she won’t know how to do it herself or imagine what she is missing.

Before anyone starts to point the finger of blame at such girls, it’s worth remembering that many of them are simply making a rational choice. Badly educated at a rough sink school, facing a dead-end, low-paid job that won’t even cover the cost of childcare, such a girl will naturally decide to do what she wants to do anyway and have a baby to love. She knows she will be better off having welfare babies than stacking shelves and better off, too, if she avoids having a man living with her, even supposing she could find one from among the antisocial, lone-parented youths on her estate. That is because the state subsidises this rational choice, disastrous though it has proved, and has done so for decades.

Women quite understandably now talk of such lifestyle choices as their right. They’ve been encouraged to. And the state has actually made poor men redundant.

There are all kinds of protest one might make at this state of affairs. It is outrageous, for instance, that more than half a century of socialism and feminism has managed to marginalise and make wretched the least privileged of men. Evidence of the failure and the alienation of working-class boys, compared with girls, is incontrovertible. “From him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away”, while to her that hath not shall be given just enough to get by on without him. So much for social justice and sexual equality.

There are further layers of injustice. The economist Professor Bob Rowthorn commented with some feeling last week that man-free women are very mistaken to imagine they don’t need men. The truth is they desperately need men in the form of all those male taxpayers (to say nothing of female taxpayers) who are forced to pay for a way of life that they don’t approve of and that they know to be socially disastrous.

It is hugely unfair to make responsible people who are struggling to support their own families struggle harder still to support women who won’t work. Family life is in a fine mess in this country. Looking after your own children has become a luxury that few women can afford, married or single, unless they abandon responsibility for themselves and go on benefits.

I doubt whether anything much can be done to untangle this mess. It is a knotty web of constant state interventions and their perverse consequences, and yet more interventions are likely to snarl things up even more. But if anything can be done, it must surely start with an emphasis on unwanted men at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Something must be done to help them become good prospects for girls wanting babies, so that they will be welcomed back into family life and become responsible family men, fathers to responsible sons. That means rescuing them from the failure, unemployment and general contempt to which many of them are now condemned. It means offering them consideration and respect — something they are routinely denied, to their deep resentment — and helping them earn it.

At a discussion of women and childcare at the CPS last week, a Conservative MP made the conventional suggestion that the workplace ought to be more feminised. Actually it is feminisation that is the problem; we have far too much of it already. Schools are feminised, run largely by women in ways that suit girls, not boys; exams have been feminised, and now girls do better in them; workplaces have been feminised; conversation and jokes have been feminised to sneer at testosterone-driven male aggression; and the entire welfare and benefits system has a bias against men. This is particularly hard on the poorest of men.

What we need now in society and in family life is not feminisation, but a new masculinisation. Otherwise yet more men will become institutionally redundant.