Lone mothers and the underclass debate

Sasha Roseneil and Kirk Mann

Alongside the growth in the number of women both having children outside marriage and bringing them up alone, recent years have seen extensive public debate about lone motherhood. This chapter explores the way this debate has created a category of mothers that is not only deemed ‘not good enough’ at the raising of children but is also pinpointed as positively harmful to society. Our particular focus is on the powerful and widespread discourse that gripped the media and policy circles in the early 1990s; this discourse links lone motherhood with the creation and reproduction of an ‘underclass’ in contemporary society. While this period is certainly not unique in its concern about the breakdown of ‘the family’ and the rise in the number of never-married mothers, this specific discursive construction of lone motherhood is particularly interesting. The intensity of media interest and the prolific nature of government pronouncements and policy proposals on the subject suggest that the confluence of the issue of lone motherhood with the notion that there is a dangerous and growing underclass has taken a firm hold on the collective conscience of British and US society.

In this chapter we explore why this discourse about lone mothers, absent fathers and the underclass has achieved such widespread credibility. Our focus is primarily on its expression in Britain, though we identify its origins in the United States, and we pass comment on the differing courses it has taken on each side of the Atlantic. We attempt to unravel some of the complex threads of moral concerns about the decline of the family, fiscal concerns about welfare benefits and ‘the costs’ of dependency, and a largely unspoken, but lurking, anti-feminism. We suggest that this discourse is located within the framework of a welfare state that is in the process of restructuring, and within a wider project of ‘patriarchal reconstruction’ (Smart 1989), and that it constitutes a ‘backlash’ against long-term changes

in gender relations and against feminism. Towards the end of the chapter we take up an issue that is at the heart of the discourse but has largely been ignored by other feminist and critical commentators: the question of agency.