ANTI-LONE MOTHER DISCOURSE IN BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES
Although much of the preceding discussion is unique to Britain in the early 1990s, there are many parallels with the United States. In both countries there has been a concerted ideological offensive against the welfare state by radical conservatives, and in both countries lone mothers have been highlighted as a serious financial burden on the taxpayer. Murray’s analysis, which he developed in the 1980s, was exported from the United States pretty much wholesale to Britain, and with this came suggestions that Britain adopt policies such as the New Jersey scheme that refuses benefit to women who have a second child while still dependent on welfare.
However, there are two substantial differences between anti-lone- mother rhetoric in Britain and in the United States. First, in the USA the discourse has long been racialized in a manner almost completely absent in Britain. Solinger argues that there are ‘two histories of single pregnancy in the post-World War II era, one for Black women and one for white’ (Solinger 1994:287). Whereas white women who gave birth outside marriage increasingly became subject to a psychological discourse, which constructed them as maladjusted and in need of help, black women who did the same were seen as merely expressing their ‘natural’, ‘unrestrained sexuality’ (Solinger 1994:299). Illegitimate white babies could therefore be removed from their mothers and adopted by ‘stable’ couples (thereby fulfilling the demand for white babies for adoption) on the grounds that this would both provide their mothers with the best chance of overcoming their neuroses, and at the same time offer the best future to the child. Illegitimate black babies, on the other hand, were left with their mothers, because adoption demand was less than for white babies, and because it was thought that their mothers were not in need of a ‘cure’. Public discourse about lone motherhood in this period focused on black women. Southern Dixiecrats and Northern racists united to condemn the social liability of black illegitimate children, and opinion polls suggested that the American people wanted to with-draw Aid to Dependent Children from these children (Solinger 1994:301). Black women thus became, often unwillingly, the first group in the United States to receive publicly subsidized birth control, sterilization and abortion (Ward 1986).
In the 1980s and 1990s the American discourse continued to highlight the special ‘problem’ of black lone motherhood. With the conservatives to the fore, liberal commentators increasingly acquiesced in the growing consensus that ‘something did have to be done about the offspring of the (mainly black) underclass, who, raised by teen moms, grow into gun-wielding, benefit-draining, drug-dealing hoodlums’ (Guardian, 31 January 1995). To date, black women have not been specifically targeted in Britain in the same way as in the United States (see Chapter 10 by Phoenix in this volume).
The second difference between the discourse in the United States and Britain is that it has achieved far greater hegemony in the USA. Both countries have seen the highest increases in lone motherhood in the developed world (Chandler 1991), but rates, particularly for lone mothers under 20, remain higher in the USA (Phoenix 1991). This, combined with the far greater political and cultural strength of the right in the USA, has meant that the discourse has been pushed further there than in Britain. In 1994, the Republicans regained control of Congress on the basis of their ‘Contract with America’, which promised to eradicate ‘the culture of welfare dependency’. Two major planks in the programme of the Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, both constitute attacks on lone motherhood: the ‘American Dream Restoration Act’, which will provide tax credits for two-parent families, and the proposal to remove children from their unmarried mothers and place them in orphanages, in order to break the cycle by which the underclass is reproduced (Guardian, 26 November 1994, 31 January 1995). In Britain, in contrast, although ‘discrimination’ against couples with children and in favour of lone parents in the allocation of council (state-subsidized) housing has been condemned by government ministers, the policy response has been to remove the obligation on local authorities to give priority to all the statutorily homeless in the allocation of housing. This move will disproportionately affect lone mothers, but is not aimed exclusively at them, suggesting that it has been more difficult to translate political rhetoric into policy proposals in Britain than it has been, and probably will be, in the United States.