This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy. To access the article click here.
In this study, I examine how low-income single mothers in Israel respond to pension policies that create inequality between the privileged and underprivileged. My aim is to demonstrate how these women respond to the demand for economic autonomy brought about by market liberalisation processes and changes in the national insurance’s allowances and pension systems.
Through interviews with low income single mothers and their trainers participating in Woman of Valor, a voluntary Israeli welfare-to-work (WTW) programme , I examine attitudes toward the imperative that it is their maternal responsibility to generate money in the present and create pension savings for the future. How do they view the neoliberal concept of the “self-sufficient mum” who is concerned about her future? What are their expectations of retirement entitlements and do they feel it worthwhile to work in order to obtain them?
Some mothers and trainers who embrace the neoliberal discourse and assimilate the idea of the “self-sufficient mum” believe that current employment will lead to an improvement in the future circumstances of themselves and their children. The interviews suggest that participation in this WTW programme has raised their awareness and acceptance of the economic responsibility imposed on them.
Other participants and trainers understand that the policy poses risks. There are mothers who expose the emptiness of the “sweet narrative” of the neoliberal discourse, accepting bad jobs but demanding policy changes to protect their present and future. Similarly there are trainers who, despite their role in encouraging mothers to follow the imperative, voice difficulties with a policy that demands self-sufficiency, but ignores the distressed economic present and future that such self-sufficiency creates. These trainers recognise that this policy exploits them as well through their low wages and problematic employment conditions. The recent pension reform in Israel has hurt low-wage workers, causing them concern for their economic situation; it has effectively expanded gender and class discrimination into old age. As was found in European countries, the privatisation of pension systems and increased dependency on market forces can reinforce socioeconomic inequalities.
The move from the “working mum” track to the imperative of the self-sufficient citizen has undermined the very limited welfare security the women had in the past, as that imperative has not been accompanied by an Israeli policy that secures jobs with reasonable wages and working conditions, or that offers a sustainable future at pension age. Both their present situation and future prospects are fragile.
In the absence of adequate public care solutions in Israel, and without jobs that enable sustainable living, present and future, the rhetoric of self-sufficiency and pension savings alone is not enough. Until it is accompanied by solutions that provide poor mothers a decent present life and guarantee them a secure future, this rhetoric remains hollow.
About the author
Anat Herbst-Debby is Head of Gender in the Field at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.