Birth rates have been falling for decades, in practically every country on earth. But not only are women having fewer children, more women are remaining childless for their entire lives.
15% of women in the United States now remain childless into their late 40s.
However, this choice to remain child-free isn’t one that comes easy.
The Guardian newspaper recently released some videos of interviews with women of various different ages who have chosen to remain childless reveal the fact that they often have to battle against the social norm that they should become mothers.
All of the women in this video explain that they were brought up with the norm that ‘normal’ women wanted children and would at some point have children.
They say that most of the subtle pressure to have children comes from their families, their own mothers and female relatives, but also their female friends and work colleagues.
If they tell a work colleague that they don’t want kids, the typical response back is that ‘you’ll want them one day’, as if the already-mothers or ‘pro-mums to be’ brush off their ‘not wanting kids’ attitude as temporary insanity, and thus to be disregarded.
One of the interviewees talks about how not having kids was never presented as a choice to her during early socialisation – it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she came across the idea that remaining childless was a legitimate choice for women.
She starts off pointing out the obvious freedoms that come with being childless – such as being able to pick up and move and switch jobs/ set up businesses/ go travelling whenever she likes, but she also says she has found freedom in a more profound sense – the freedom to be creative and to pursue and to develop her own career as she sees fit.
Finally, Neumann says that having remained child-free until her menopause has given her a fresh perspective on the whole status of childless women, and she presents a broadly radical-feminist that sees becoming a mother as the main event that locks women into traditionally gendered carer-roles , chained because they are mothers.
She also reminds us that all other things being equal it is much easier to free yourself form an abusive relationship if you have your own income, which is much more likely if you are not a mother!
There is a cost to remaining childless:
Women who remain childless have to pay for it:
Quite literally pay for contraception, and possibly abortions (she’s had two)
You have to be mentally disciplined enough to stick to a contraceptive routine.
You have to put up with the ‘too-personal inquiries’ in to why you’ve never had children (our female bodies are never our own),
And you have to suffer the loss of social status that comes with being motherless, as ‘mothers are the moral future of the nation’.
How do we explain the long term decline in UK Poverty rate, and its more recent increase?
The UK has seen significant falls in poverty over the last 20 years, HOWEVER, this progress is now at risk of reversing as poverty rates have been increasing in recent years. This blog posts summarizes the 20 year trend in UK Poverty according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2017 Poverty Report. Specifically it looks at:
The overall 20 year trend in UK poverty
poverty among pensioners and children
Three drivers of the reduction in poverty rates
Three threats to the continued reduction in poverty rates
NB I’m using the same information from the report, but I’ve changed the order in which it’s reported and summarized it down further. Personally I think my version is much more immediately accessible to your ‘non-expert’: IMO the ‘JRF have a tendency to ‘over-report’ reams of nuanced data, and the overall picture just gets lost. The detail’s important if you’re a policy wonk, but probably going to get lost on the average, interested member of the general public.
Before reading this post you might like to check out my ‘what is poverty?‘ post which covers the basic definition of some of the terms used below.
The overall 20 year trend in UK poverty….the fall and rise of UK poverty rates
20 years ago, in 1996, nearly a quarter (24%) of the UK’s population lived in poverty. By 2004, this had fallen to one in five (20%) of the population. However, by 2016, the proportion had risen slightly to 22%.
*Relative poverty is when a family has an income of less than 60% of median income for their family type, after housing costs.
Children and pensioners living in poverty
As the chart above clearly shows, the biggest success stories in the long term reduction in poverty over the last 20 years are the numbers of pensioners who have been taken out of poverty and (to a lesser extent) the number of children.. As the chart above shows:
In 1995, 28% of pensioners lived in poverty, falling to 13% in 2012, but rising to 16% by 2016.
In 1995, a third of children lived in poverty, falling to 27% in 2012, but rising to 30% in 2016
However, during that time the proportion of working age couples without children in poverty actually grew slightly, from 16% to 18%.
Factors correlated with falling poverty rates
The report notes three main factors which are mainly responsible for this long term overall decline in poverty:
Rising employment, linked with higher wages due to the minimum wage, and better education.
Increased support through benefits, especially the increase in the state pension age, but also out of work benefits for working age people with children
Housing benefit and increased home ownership containing the impact of rising rents.
Factors explaining the long term decrease of UK Poverty in more depth
It seems that the main drivers behind the long-term decrease in poverty in the UK are the ‘positive’ economic factors such as improvements in the employment rate, pay and conditions, rather than increases to benefits.
Below I select what appear to be the five most import factors from the report which explain the long term decrease in poverty.
The increase in the state pension
The most significant reduction in poverty has been achieved with pensioners, and according to the JRF report, the main reason for this was a one off increase in the state pension at the beginning of the century:
NB – there is a lot of variation in pensioner income, which I may explore in a future post…
The employment rate has increase from around 71% in 1996 to around 75% in 2016…
NB – while you are statistically more likely to be in poverty if you’re not in-work, being employed it itself is not sufficient to avoid being in poverty. Both the introduction of the minimum wage, and changes to in work benefits for lone parents have been essential to making sure that a higher proportion of people in employment are also not officially in poverty. While work today is more likely to lift you out of poverty than in 1996, it remains the case that a large percentage of those in poverty are in-work (typically in part-time jobs).
Earnings are up for people with all levels of qualifications…
Obviously higher earnings are more likely to lift people out of poverty, HOWEVER, at the bottom end of the income earning scale, and especially for those with children and in part-time jobs, the increasing cost of living, especially rent (but also childcare and even food and utilities) has negated much of the above increase in wages, hence why government support in the form of child tax credits and housing benefit remains important.
The number of people with degrees has nearly trebled in this period: from around 12% of the UK population to over 30%
Those with degrees earn approximately twice the amount of those with no qualifications, so it would seem that New Labour’s focus on ‘education, education, education‘, and their push to get more people into higher education has had a positive impact in poverty reduction. However, with the introduction of tuition fees and with increasing competition for highly skilled jobs coming from abroad, it’s not clear that this trend (of more and more people getting degrees) is set to continue.
The introduction of the national minimum wage has resulted in a 46% relative pay increase for the poorest 10%, compared to a 40% median national increase
Both the introduction of the minimum wage and its subsequent increases seem to have been one of the most important factors in tackling in-work poverty. However, even with the minimum wage, a possible future barrier to further poverty reduction lies in the growth of precarious jobs leading to ‘underemployment’ – where people get too few hours to earn a decent living. For more on this, see my summary of the RSA’s report on ‘Future Work in the UK‘.
The increase in out of work benefits for people with children
Basically, there has a been a very slight long-term increase in out of work benefits for people with children, who are now slightly better off than 20 years ago, while poor people without children have seen no change, or are slightly worse off.
I guess this leads to an overall reduction in the poverty rate simply because there are more people per family household rather than just couple or single person household.
You can see from the above chart, that lone parents claiming JSA and child benefits were briefly lifted to 60% of median income (just on the poverty line) – sufficient to take them out of poverty, however, you can also see that benefits are again being cut back, so we can probably expect poverty rates to increase again in the future!
And one factor which doesn’t seem to explain the overall reduction in poverty… changes to in-work benefits…
With the exception of single parents who are better off over a twenty year period, every other household type seems to be worse off! Thus I can’t see how this variable would explain the long term decrease in UK poverty.
Potential barriers to further reductions in poverty
All three of the main drivers of poverty reduction mentioned above are now under question:
The continued rise in employment is no longer reducing poverty.
State support for low-income families is falling in real terms, and negates the gains made by increasing employment and wages.
Rising rents, less help for low-income renters and falling home ownership leave more people struggling to meet the cost of housing.
On the surface this seems to be strong supporting evidence for Sue Palmer’s theory of toxic childhood – the idea that a combination of factors associated with (post) modern life are harming children. The article lists three factors which are seen being responsible for increasing sleep deprivation among children
Blue light emitted by smartphones and tablets reduces the production of melatonin, the ‘ sleepy hormone’ – NB I can just imagine a vicious cycle at work here – can’t sleep, get on your phone – which makes it less likely that you’ll get to sleep!
Households where both parents work can be busier in the evenings, pushing bedtimes later – here’s a nice link to the concept of paranoid parenting – because children are the most precious things in parents lives, they have to see them before they go to bed, which does them unintentional harm.
Fizzy drinks high in sugar and caffeine have also made it harder for children to switch off at night – which can also compound the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
Some of the possible harmful effects of sleep deprivation are as follows:
Decreased concentration at school, leading to lower educational achievement
While this appears to be straight-up supporting evidence for Toxic Childhood, you need to be careful how the concepts are operationalised (see * below), also the fact that children are more likely to be taken to hospital doesn’t necessarily mean there is an increase in sleep deprivation, it might mean that paranoid parents are just more sensitive to the issue today, and/ or medical practitioners are happier to diagnose sleep, so this could all be a social construction….
*Actually TBH that statement’s a headline grabber – according to the article, adults and children aged 0-55 (combined) are more likely to be given prescriptions for sleep deprivation, but children are ten times more likely to have hospital appointments for the condition.
Sue Palmer’s (2006) book Toxic Childhood argued that children were being harmed by a combination of technological and social changes such as increasingly screen based lifestyles, a hyper-competitive education system, the decline of outdoor play and the commercialisation of childhood.
Palmer argued that changes to childhood resulted in harms such as higher obesity levels, reduced concentration spans, and increasing mental health problems.
This recent Guardian article (December 2016) demonstrates the continued relevance of this book and the concept of Toxic Childhood –
A group of 40 leading authors, educationalists and child-development experts is calling on the government to introduce national guidelines on the use of screens, amid concern about the impact on children’s physical and mental health. Among them are the author Philip Pullman, and the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
The letter calls for the development of kindergarten-style education for three- to seven-year-olds, with emphasis on social and emotional development and outdoor play; and says guidelines on screen-based technology for children up to 12 should be drawn up by recognised authorities on child health and development.
It is 10 years since the group sent its first letter to the media (inspired by Palmer’s book), expressing concern about the way it believes children’s health and well-being. Since then, they say, obesity and mental health problems among young people approaching crisis levels.
Sue Palmer, the author of Toxic Childhood, is among the letter’s signatories, she argues that “Without concerted action, our children’s physical and mental health will continue to deteriorate, with long-term results for UK society that are frankly unthinkable.”
Palmer says there are just two essential ingredients if children are to survive and thrive whatever the future brings: love and play.
However, not everyone subscribes to the doom-laden view of modern childhood and the “toxic” environment in which children are growing up. Recent studies have suggested that screen-based technology can encourage reading in boys from low-income families and that there may be a positive link between computer games and academic performance.
Then again, Whitney Houston reminds us that ‘children are the Future’, which pretty much proves Palmer right….
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