Saturday, October 30, 2010

Creepy Cops

We’ve just got back from the police station.  It wasn’t a pretty experience.  The place was brimming with menacing characters, the walls were blood stained and the air was thick with the voices of screaming children. My main thought was to make it quickly through the maze of corridors and get Little Teadrinker out of there just as fast as possible.  Our crime?  Choosing to attend the annual Campusville West District police halloween haunted house...
Its no exaggeration to say that Americans take halloween very seriously.  The build-up has been going on for weeks now, with temporary costume shops popping up everywhere and frenzied exchanges on on subjects as diverse as where one can find a lobster costume for a 10 month-old and the most suitable ghoul outfit for a pregnant mom. One gets the feeling that babies born in Campusville General’s maternity ward this weekend will be delivered straight out of the womb into pumpkin suits.
Yet the irony of police here dedicating a whole building and a significant proportion of the local constabulary to scaring small children for two whole evenings (oh yes two), just as UK police face 20% cuts is hard to ignore.  Even when the public purse was flush, such an event would scandalise spendthrift Brits - you can see the headlines now: Cop-Shop Shuts for Fuzz Freak Show. Its interesting that in contrast, in the midst of a financial crisis in a culture where tax is widely regarded as legalised robbery, this particular bit of state sponsored family fun is not something that the community chooses to forgo.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fall-ing Mama Grizzlies

Sweet, shiney toffee-apples abound, pumpkins sit on doorsteps and the leaves are luminous. Yet amidst Campusville’s clear, crisp autumnal air, there’s an unmistakable whiff. For as sure as Fall is upon us, the US political season has arrived. 
The mid-terms are in less than two weeks - campaign posters are popping up in front yards and every time Little Teadrinker and I pass by the mall, we’re accosted by canvassers - “Are you a Campusville voter ma'am?”.  The asker yesterday morning was a Green Party activist, keen to let me know about the threat to the town’s skyline from large billboards. But in spite of the wide eyed little face staring up at us from the stroller, he failed to make the obvious argument: that I should vote Green for the sake of my child’s future.
This is not the kind of mistake you'd expect these days from an activist from either of the two main parties.  Both Democrats and Republicans are keener than ever to appeal to voters’ maternal instincts. With their swing-voter tendencies, moms have long been a key target. But since Sarah Palin arrived on the scene in 2007 they have risen dramatically in the consciousness of US electioneers and spin doctors.  
On the Republican side, the approach has been less dog-whistle politics and more a loud-as-you-can-bare-it cat call.  Palin’s Mama Grizzly video  is a case in point. Speaking in San Diego last week she made a rallying call for all Grizzlies to “rise up on our hind legs and say no”. The party is now trying to capitalise on her fan-base with Palin endorsed Mama Grizzly nominees standing for office across the country.  But while their brand is unmistakable, their policies are pretty indistinct from the wider far-right/Tea Party movement within the Republican party.  They tend to be driven by Christian values (most are anti-choice) and are fiscally conservative (all oppose the Health Bill).  They provoke a mixture of devotion and scorn but it is not very clear how their demands will meet the needs of America’s great many over-worked, under-paid and currently financially insecure moms. NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently described them as “the ideal nihilistic cheerleaders for an angry electorate”.
The Democrats were late-comers to the momification of political marketing but have now cottoned on that while the Hilary Clintons and Nancy Pelosis of this world are  highly skilled champions of women’s policies, to win votes younger female faces are needed from outside the traditional political elite.  The most promising poster girl for this is the Democrat Congressional nominee for Virginia’s 1st district.  She is impressive 28 year old mother of two, entrepreneur and software designer Krystal Ball who has nobly fought off  sexist internet smears.  If she wins, she will be the youngest ever female congress woman. However, much of the Democrat effort to win female voters is based on slating the Palinites and even Ball seems shy about using her platform to tell a positive story about what has been achieved and where we must go next in terms of issues such as fair pay, education investment, health reform and maternity rights.     
Before the last leaves turn, we will know much more about whether all this mom-talk has really changed anything.  But looking at some of the polling data from the last few weeks, prospects do not look promising.   Three major points of note: 
  • Beyond Palin herself, the “mama-grizzlies” are failing to win-over Republican women. For example, Fox has reported that in  in Connecticut, Delaware and Nevada, Palin-backed Republican female candidates are polling behind Democrat men. 
  • Women across the spectrum are becoming disaffected with politics, more so than men. Since the mid 1980s women in the US have turned out to vote in greater proportions than men, and the gap in voter participation between male and female eligible voters reached its widest in 2008.  But the latest data from Gallup suggests all that might be about to change.  When asked about their enthusiasm to vote, US women now lag 13 percentage points behind men.
  • The number of women in Congress looks likely to fall for the first time.  Independent analysts are predicting 5-10 fewer women, despite the Republican party putting up a record 128 female candidates.  Susan Page of USA Today explains that this is to do with voters, both male and female, turning away from the Democrats (who have greater female presence) and opting for what they believe to be a “safe” pair of male hands in these tough economic times. 

So, after all the noise it seems as if America may be no closer to achieving a political system which is genuinely responsive to the needs of women.  Disappointing? Yes. Inevitable? Maybe.  The idea that the huge appetite for change that existed in America in 2008 has crumbled under the weight of financial crisis is now widely accepted.  Just as Obama’s Rooseveltian moment has passed, so it could be argued has the moment for a new mom-politique. But this explanation on its own feels too fatalistic. Even in hard times, it must be possible for politicians to speak directly to the needs of moms, and women in general. But, unlike a lot of what we've seen, the approach needs to be serious and content driven. Eye-catching and insubstantial is fine for a toffee apple, but it won't do for women.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

New York, New York

Hello from a sunny Union Square, Manhattan. We’ve come here for a couple of days as Mr TD has a conference on. Its the first time I’ve visited New York as a mum and I’ve found the city surprisingly family friendly. There’s an astonishing amount of stuff on for kids, crossing the road with a pram has proved far easier than doing so without one and a number of locals have even found time to stop and coo at Little Teadrinker. They are also positively brimming with parenting advice. So far this morning I’ve had: “Your baby needs to get oudda da sun”, “You awda cover her feet”, “Dat’s bread ain’t sowft enough for her”... Its at least reassuring to know that, despite American aversion to nanny statism, Hilary Clinton’s favourite African proverb has some currency round here: “It takes a village city to raise a child”.

Sadly, my enthusiasm for the city appears to shared by ever smaller proportions of those living here. Two million New Yorkers have left the State over the past decade and census data shows that New York leads the nation with net out-migration of 20 to 35 year olds. In other words, many are going at about the time they start to think about becoming parents.

What’s driving the exodus? The picture those I've spoken to paint feels familiar enough to me as a Londoner. People with kids leave Manhattan, and then New York looking for more space. They leave because childcare is expensive and they’re nervous about the public school system. And they leave because they want to be able to afford to spend less time with their nose to the grind stone, and more with their children.

A quick look at home economics suggests that the pressures on New York families could well be more accute than for their counterparts in London. The University of Washington, who calculate the New York “Self-Sufficiency Standard” every year, find that to get by with a basic standard of living a Brooklyn family with two adults, a school-aged child, and a preschooler, for example, needs to earn $68,288 a year ($5,691 a month).  That works out as $16.17 (£10.13) per hour for each adult and is more than what half the workers in the city earn.  The Greater London Authority’s London Living Wage, which is the London equivalent, is by contrast pegged at a mere £7.85 ($12.53) per hour. And of course, Londoners on low wages are likely to be able to access a far greater range of benefits and tax breaks. In the US, financial support for a family of this size doesn't generally kick in until they have an income of less than around $22k - less than one-third of the Self-Sufficiency Standard.

In the aftermath of "The Great Recession", prospects for turning this round don't look heartening. Job creation is a major New York Mid-term election issue, but from a glance at the campaign literature low wages and the high cost of living don’t even figure. Lets hope the political masters turn their attention to the issue before the rush out of New York becomes a stampeed...