Families: free welfare for the capitalists


In her 1993 book, The End of Equality?, Anne Summers admits to being puzzled by the Howard government's concern about Australia's low birth rate and its call for women to reproduce more while, at the same time, it refuses to provide inexpensive and quality childcare to help this happen.

Summers also finds it puzzling that the Coalition is forcing some mothers off welfare and into the work force while, at the same time, trying to get other mothers to stay at home and be economically dependent on their partner. She finds it curious that the government has used the courts to try to block single women and lesbian couples accessing state IVF programs at the same time that federal treasurer Peter Costello is calling on women to have one baby for themselves, one for their partner and one for the country.

Summers concludes that the attack on women's rights comes down to the fact that Howard and many of his ministers have an entrenched ideological opposition to the notion that women are equal to men. She believes that their actions are a result of their sexist ideas. But this misses the main point. While Howard and many of his ministers are undoubtedly sexist, they aren't attacking women's rights just because of their sexist ideas.

Howard's is a capitalist government, one that acts on behalf of the capitalist rulers. Despite a large percentage of women in the work force, the capitalist system still requires the family unit to provide free labour to reproduce the next generation of workers while maintaining the current one.

The capitalist class doesn't want to pay to replace what is currently free labour provided by the family. It doesn't want to pay for any welfare, which is why it has forced so many people off the system and made sure that the majority of young people who are studying or unemployed stay at home until their 20s.

The health system and disability services are underfunded in every state, meaning that thousands of mainly women are full-time or part-time carers for disabled or elderly family members. The aged-care system is a user pays one — that's the only form of services the capitalist class will countenance.

For the capitalist system to ensure that the family continues to provide free welfare services, it needs to convince someone within the family unit that their primary role is to provide those services for free — and that someone is predominantly women.

In 1998, Howard put it bluntly, but accurately from the capitalist state's point of view, when he said: "It is an undeniable fact that stable, united families represent the most efficient welfare system that any nation has devised".

With such a large percentage of women in the work force, full-time or part-time, the capitalist system is dependent on the exploitation of female as well as male workers. Even where one parent might want to give up work to look after children, it is often not possible with the high level of indebtedness.

Women's attitudes have changed since the 1960s. Women in Australia are exercising their right to decide when, and whether, to have children. That's why the birth rate is declining. Around 28% of women will decide not to reproduce. Women expect the economic independence that comes from having a job, regardless of whether or not they have children. This presents the capitalist state with a dilemma: how to convince women that they still have to take primary responsibility for providing welfare via the family unit?

The government's policies, which penalise two-income families with children and reward single-income families with children, and the cuts to child care, are designed to reinforce the idea that women's primary role, even if they work full-time, is to provide free welfare services — child care, aged care, primary medical services, cooking and cleaning.

Surveys continue to show that women still do the overwhelming majority of housework, cooking and child care, even in households where their male partners share some of these tasks.

This is not the first time that the capitalist system has put immense pressure on the family unit to provide free services. Frederick Engels and Karl Marx wrote about the pressure on families during the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Then, the newfound economic independence of women and children meant that many unemployed male workers couldn't boss them around for fear that the breadwinner women workers or child workers would leave.

Engels and Marx also described the emergent capitalist class's worries about women losing the skills to sew and cook as a result of working such long hours. Some of the reforms regarding women and child workers then weren't just a result of concern about the health and welfare of these workers. More, they related to the capitalist class's concern that the family unit — the most capitalist-friendly welfare system — was maintained.