Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mobilizing Moms

Everyone from students to workers to anti tax-evasion protesters have taken to England’s streets in recent weeks. And yesterday, British mums stormed Whitehall.... or so my day dream went.

Monday saw the High Court in London throw out a legal challenge brought by the UK’s leading gender equality campaign, the Fawcett society, against the Coalition Government over its 2010 ‘austerity’ budget. Fawcett’s analysis showed that $5.7 billion worth of cuts, out of a total $8.1 billion cuts, are directed at women - yet the Government had neglected to meet its legal obligation to conduct an equalities impact assessment which would have exposed this and potentially prevented it from happening.  The case was kicked out on grounds the point was “unarguable - or academic”.
The idea that these events would prove a tipping point for women is surely not so far fetched.  But in the end, there was no revolt; the day ended on more of a whimper. The protest outside didn’t attract more than a hand-full, despite the backing of a number of prominent female MPs and Fawcett’s best efforts to rally the troops on Twitter. All trudged back onto the tube at the end of the day, in time to make the tea.
Would the story have been the same if this had happened in the US?  My reckoning is: probably not.
As regular readers know from previous blogposts, when it comes to election politics, I don’t believe that America's political parties have a great amount to teach the UK on representing women’s political issues.  The narrative that emerged in the mid-terms campaign this year was indistinct at best, and at worst negative.
But look beyond electoral politics and you’ll find a strong, strategic popular American women’s movement, and specifically a ‘moms’ movement, the likes of which I don’t see paralleled in the UK.  
Since 2006 the organisation Momsrising.org has provided a cogent voice for women, spearheading campaigns across the country.  Their manifesto is primarily about achieving family economic security and wellbeing and the issues they work on include: paid parental leave; health insurance; quality, affordable preschool and after school programs; flexible workplaces; fair wages and ending salary and hiring discrimination based family responsibilities.  And their results are not to be sniffed at: they count US’s Fair Pay Act and legislation to eliminate toxic toys amongst their achievements, and also played a crucial part in supporting the Health Reform Bill
The key to Momsrising's success is that they are not a traditional lobby group.  They are a virtual organisation, headed up by a handful of volunteers and paid staff who live in different places across the country, meeting up in person every 6-12 months for staff retreats. Like Fawcett they run excellent, professional campaigns, disseminating information to the public and issuing press releases.  But like Mumsnet they encourage members to join online for free and actively participate in debate - albeit in a more tightly administered blog format rather than free-for-all chat-rooms.  
This approach has enabled them to build support and connections at grass roots level, going further than Fawcett or Mumsnet and actually mobilising millions of busy moms.  They interact with members of the community frequently, providing them with the tools to become advocates for their own cause.  Join their mailing list and you will be supported to make timely representations yourself - email updates keep you instantly informed about all relevant votes and policy decisions taking place, as well as details of the political representatives and law-makers you should contact - whether by phone, letter or email.  Public rallies is not a central campaign tactic (most moms would struggle...) but, as a result of their mass membership, they have also proven to be able to summons a fearsome mom-crowed at very short notice when needed.   
In the wake of yesterday’s decision at the High Court, the women’s movement in the UK must take stock of its future.  If we can build a mass movement with clear policy mandate and an effective strategy we could come out fighting yet. America's Momsrising is a model to aspire too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

People like US

Wanna get your child on the development fast track?  Got $400 and time in the day to spare for a course of classes? Live in an affluent area in the US? Then do not fear, commercially run parenting centres like this Boston based chain may be opening in an area near you soon.  
Little Teadrinker and I sampled our first session last week - we chose the Movers and Groovers developmental class for 9-11 month olds. Having navigated our way through the centre’s enticing posh baby shop to the ‘studio’, we were greeted by a circle of 10 cheery moms and their babies.  Our Akela was an uber parenting expert and Masters qualified early years pedagogue - Brits: think Floella Benjamin meets Tanya Byron.  After an initial exchange of baby related woes and advice, events kicked off with songs and stories, the moms and the brightest babies fluently baby-signing along. Next up was a range of motor development activities involving high-tech props including a parachute. The moms enthused from the sidelines as the babies crawled clambered and toddled around happily in the centre of the circle. The vibe was relaxed, although the competitive under-tone irrepressible “Has Aiden crawled through the tunnel yet?”, “Did I hear Josie say quack already?”.  Akela rounded up with some Thanks Giving advice on safety and dealing with sensory overload, finally sharing some Christmas shopping tips on where to buy the best wooden toys.
The pushy posh parent phenomenon is by no means exclusive to the US, yet in the UK we have not seen the likes of private parenting centres.  Could the reason be that the state has captured the market?  After all, Sure Start Children’s Centres now exist across England offering families with young children universal free access to everything from baby massage to dad’s stay and play and breastfeeding consultations - where they are run well, middle class parents come flocking.  The US equivalent, which started in 1965 and was an antecedent to Sure Start, is not open to better off families.  Typically for the US, Head Start is targeted exclusively at those on low incomes.  Obama is a firm believer and used the Economic Stimulus Package to boost its funding to the tune of $2billion.
Yet in the UK the principle of a universallity is proving hard to defend in the face of massive pressure on public finances - why shouldn’t “middle class freebies” be first in line for cuts?  Ministers are hinting that Children’s Centres could go the same way as Head Start, and as the UK's Child Benefit system, with only the most disadvantaged drawing the full benefit in the future. 
The argument for targeting Sure Start seems, initially at least, pretty compelling. The original architects of the Sure Start programme argued that universal, free access was necessary to avoid stigmatisation of services - something which had been a problem with Headstart. Yet England’s Sure Start experience has shown that even an open-to-all service does not necessarily entice those in the most dire situations, many of whom run a mile from anything that looks like authority or institution.  An early evaluation showed that Children’s Centres were failing in this respect, and a lot more money had to be pumped in to reach out to those families.
But before throwing the baby out with the bath water, politicians in the UK should take time to look once more at the US experience.  It reveals at least three troubling trade-offs...
1/  Targeting early years services could be culturally divisive. As our little venture last week illustrates, while it may be pleasant to be surrounded by “people like us”, the US’s targeted approach has led to a socially segregated, two-tier system.  A sorting effect happens of course to an extent anyway when children reach school age (watch Waiting for Superman for a powerful tale on the divided US school system), but by drawing the line so clearly about who accesses what so early in a child’s life differences between social classes are being reinforced at every level: social networks, peer effects, parents’ aspirations expectations, notions of tastefulness - remember the wooden toys...
2/ There’s a risk of disenfranchising the wrong groups.  A large proportion of families are likely to be left out of the equation all together - not poor enough to qualify for publicly subsidised services and not wealthy enough to fork out for the private alternative.  Many of the would-be excluded families make up the “squeezed middle” whose needs politicians both sides of the Atlantic are now claiming to acknowledge.  
3/ A minority services is often a weak service.  Headstart has survived an incredibly long time, but only just.  Most would acknowledge that it has remained a marginalised service with significant shortcomings: notably, the most comprehensive evaluation to date came out in January showing that children's attendance in Headstart had no impact on their academic, social-emotional or health status at the end of first grade. The lack of sustained benefits has been troubling its proponents for years, but attempts to fix it have been relatively limited.  Such drift would likely not have been tolerated had pointy elbowed middle class parents seen it as in their interests to agitate for a solution.  Crucially, the lack of broad public support is now putting the programme at risk, in spite of Obama’s wish to improve and build on the programme.  

Last week, a vote to renew the fiscal stimulus money for early years was kicked into the long-grass by Congress, meaning that it might be ditched entirely and hundreds of thousands of children could be kicked off the Headstart rolls. The issue hasn’t even made the national press.