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Knowsley - The town that marriage forgot: My journey to single mother central
Step outside the comfort zone of your own community for a moment and imagine what a society would look like in which 75 per cent of all children are born outside marriage.
That's a projection by the Office of National Statistics which suggests this could become a reality in as little as five years' time.
It offers a profoundly disturbing vision of Britain with its social fabric torn away: the stability of the nuclear family all but lost, the discipline and love of a father absent in so many children's lives.
Lack of drive: Some single mothers feel they are better off on benefits
You may like to think it just won't happen, that such a prediction is simply too extreme.
But the truth is that, give or take a few percentage points, it already has. Nationally, the number of children born out of wedlock has risen steeply to 45 per cent - with 30 per cent of those being born to unmarried couples and 15 per cent to single mothers.
There is, however, one town in this country where the number of lone-parent families is nearly twice the national average, where residents claim the second highest Jobseeker's Allowance, where 25 per cent of people claim long-term sickness benefits, and where in some areas nearly half of all people smoke.
The place is Knowsley on Merseyside, which - with a shade under 70 per cent of children born outside marriage - might better be labelled Single Mum Central. It is, in short, the town that turned its back on marriage.
Of course, those figures include children born to couples who cohabit, but spend any time here and it's clear that thousands of children are being raised without a father in their lives.
To anyone who thinks that marriage doesn't matter any more, I would say this: look for the legacy of this seismic social change in the schools of this once genteel town.
Surely it can be no coincidence that these secondary schools are the worst in the country, bar none.
I travelled to Knowsley this week and was surprised to find it is not, as you might have thought, a hideous high-rise hell with boarded-up High Streets, burnt-out cars and broken windows.
Yes, there are four tower blocks, but even they are freshly painted with smart cars parked outside. The vast majority of homes are mostly semis in neat cul-de-sacs.
Government support: The vast majority of homes in Knowsley, on Merseyside, are semis in neat cul-de-sacs
70 per cent of children are born out of marriage in the town of Knowsley
The shopping precincts are not closed but thriving with budget booze shops, betting shops and every free government-funded service under the sun. I even found a dentist that was taking on NHS patients.
The streets are as tidy as Tunbridge Wells, the lawns freshly mown, flower beds everywhere and houses as neat as a pin.
Hardly what you would expect of one of the most deprived areas in Britain - but then it's not hard to work out why.
Thanks to this Government's determination to pour money into the North, hundreds of millions of pounds - some say more than £1billion - has been spent on regenerating Knowsley, so it is as far from the stereotypical sink estate as you can imagine.
But as far as I can see it is essentially an elaborate facade, concealing some of the greatest social deprivation in this country coupled with an abject lack of social responsibility and a benefits culture that is shocking to behold.
Surely the millions spent on buildings is misplaced when Knowsley's secondary schools are producing the worst GCSE results in the country?
Barely a quarter of school-leavers achieve the government-recognised standard of five A* to C-grade GCSEs.
Ironically, that's close to the proportion of children around here who are born to married parents.
David Cameron dreams of a Big Society with people taking responsibility for their own lives.
They don't get much further away from that idea than Knowsley, where I find an unusually large number of very young women with a cigarette in one hand, pram in the other.
The first single mum I encounter is Kate, who has two kids, no husband, no partner, and is listlessly pushing her four-year-old daughter on a swing, and looking ten years older than her 29 years.
'I'd love to work,' she says, 'but the kids come first, and it's important for me to drop them off and pick them up from school.'
Many single mothers raise their children alone - the fathers are nowhere to be seen
Admirable motherly instincts, but how does she support herself?
'We struggle, but we get by. We've got the welfare and we've got the council. What else do we need?'
A father for the kids, I ask? 'They've got different dads,' she says bluntly.
Do they support the children? 'Don't be daft.'
What about a job to provide a better life for your children?
'I'd happily go back to work if I could work between the school runs. But there are no jobs like that which pay more than my benefits.'
The truth is she's right: such is the bloated level of state support the Government offers women such as these, there is simply no incentive for them to work.
So how much can a single mother in Knowsley expect in government handouts?
There are many variables to take into account, but if you are a single, unemployed mother of two children under five who have no disabilities, living in council accommodation, you can expect about £260 in benefits per week.
This week, the local JobCentre was offering vacancies for housekeepers: one was at £11.53 an hour for eight hours at weekends that would pay £92.24 a week, and another at £6.18 an hour for 20 hours a week between 1-5pm, totalling £123.60 a week.
If they work more than 16 hours a week, they could also be eligible for tax credits.
These would be in addition to other benefits such as child, housing and council tax allowances.
Little wonder, then, that many young women choose to raise children in the knowledge we will pick up the bills.
Sally is 22 years old and, despite having three children, is very much unmarried. One baby is crying in her arms, two young children a year apart are playing at her feet.
I swear she's wearing pyjamas, but she insists they're a designer tracksuit. She is puffing cigarette smoke all over her little lad and pushes back her blonde hair extensions with fingers bedecked with stick-on acrylic nails.
'Stop screaming,' she yells at the baby, which makes the child stop and one of the toddlers start.
'People look down on single mums,' Sally says, 'but it's bloody hard work.'
Do your friends look down on you? ''Course not, they're no better than me, they've got no bloke either.'
Sally's tale is a familiar one. She fell pregnant for the first time at 15 to a boy she met at school. Her mother was unmarried and never worked (nor does her mother's boyfriend), nor did her mother before that.
They let her stay in their council house until she became pregnant again two years later, and then had to wait for her turn on the council housing ladder.
She now lives on welfare in a council flat with her three children, whom she refuses to name as she doesn't want them to 'get a stigma'.
The fathers are nowhere to be seen - just as guilty in their own way for what is happening here.
Education: Many single mothers drop out of school or college to raise children
Has she ever worked? 'No.' Any plans to? Again, she says: 'Why should I work when I get more on benefits? And anyway, I don't want to leave the kids. What kind of mother would that make me?'
None of the fathers has any role in raising his child, financial or parental.
Sally and her family survive solely on the state. When I ask her how much in benefits she gets a week, she says: 'None of your business. Not enough, that's for sure, not f***ing enough', as she lights another cigarette.
So how did this once respectable working-class area, where people did work and welfare was a dirty word, where marriage and the family were seen as the bedrock of the community, turn into a ghetto of dependency?
The roots of its decline can be traced back to the Sixties and Seventies, when the docks closed and entire families become unemployed overnight.
Canon Jimmy Collins, 93, who was a parish priest in Knowsley for more than 30 years, says: 'When I came here in the Fifties, it was almost unheard of for a woman to have a baby outside wedlock.
'But I would say that after the mid-Seventies, Knowsley wasn't the same place any more.
'There was a lot of deprivation and it seemed women would get pregnant to escape poverty. They knew the Government would give them benefits and rehouse them.
'It's sad that the once strong Christian values of Knowsley have changed so much. It used to be a marker of Christianity that you didn't have sex before marriage.'
Clean: Thanks to Government funding, Knowsley - one of the most deprived areas in Britain - is thriving
Meanwhile, by the Eighties, Liverpool had become known as Smack City due to the explosion in organised gang crime and heroin abuse, especially in the more deprived areas.
Some things don't change. Although the area has seen some of the largest decreases in crime across the country, especially in violent and anti-social crime, drug offences are up 50 per cent since 2000.
Drugs are a symptom of the hopelessness of youths without a decent education, born into families of third or fourth generation unemployed.
What hope do they have, especially if there are no fathers to guide them and offer them a role model to look up to?
David Dunne, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Knowsley, says that the lack of stability within families is at the core of the area's many problems: ' Children are better off in a stable environment and a marriage is the best basis for providing that.
'Some single mums feel that they are better off on benefits and we need to address the benefits system because this is attitude is not good for society.
'It feeds a lack of drive and does not set a good example to their children, who grow up believing it's better to be on benefits than to work. Kids see no point in doing anything, which creates wider anti-social behaviour and crime problems.'
The spiral of broken families and broken societies is so ingrained here, but surely all the single mothers can't be like Kate and Sally.
I went to meet Mica, a 19-year-old, at her home on a council estate in the town, in a semi she shares with her mum Margi.
Mica is a pretty brunette with a sweet smile. She was jiggling her ten-month-old baby daughter, Ava, in her arms as I arrived.
'I was gutted when I found out I was pregnant,' she says. 'I was studying to be a teaching assistant.
'I could have stayed in college when I got pregnant - they've got creches to help single mums, but I didn't want to. I wanted to be home with my baby after she was born.'
She had known the father for six months and they'd had sex once.
'I'd just gone on the Pill and no one told me I had to wait two weeks before I could, you know...
'It was just that one time. He didn't even believe he was the dad, so I had her on my own and stayed with Mum.
'Now he accepts he's her father and he's seen her and I'm really pleased.'
She is evasive about how often, and about whether he contributes to Ava's upkeep, although an informal arrangement appears to be in place.
Would she like any more children? Her mum Margi, still in her pyjamas at 11.30am, says: 'She's not having no more kids for me to look after.'
Yes, but isn't it the Government that looks after you if she does?
'I only get £130 a week benefit because I live here with Mum,' is Mica's response.
Mica says she never wanted to be a single mum, but now she has Ava she's really glad she continued with the pregnancy. She plans to return to college this September and continue her course.
'Big problem': Young women raising children alone believe they are better off on benefits than working
'There are lots of single mums around here,' she says with staggering understatement, counting her pregnant single friends on her fingers: 'One, two, three...'
It is her mother who gets to the root of the issue. 'There's no stigma about that around here now. It was a "no no" even to have a boyfriend when I was growing up; now it's nothing to have no boyfriend, no husband and a baby.'
Mica has the last word. 'I'm going back to college to study. Maybe one day I'll become a teacher. I want to work and I don't want to be on benefits for the rest of my life.'
Strange, isn't it, how all the young women you meet are able-bodied and bright, yet cannot seem to find work.
But it is not all hopeless. Even the Government realises the only way out of this spiral of poverty and dependency is through education and employment.
At least one of the private Welfare To Work schemes they have operating in the area has had good results getting single mothers back to work.
One of the women who runs the scheme told me they have a 42 to 52 per cent success rate getting lone parents into jobs, and 85 per cent of them are still working in those jobs three months later.
She says: 'The biggest problem we face is that young women think they're better off on benefits than working, but the truth is that with Tax Credits, working a 16-hour week on the basic wage mums can be better off - especially around here, where the Government piloted a scheme giving lone parents an extra £40 a week incentive to work.
'Our job is to convince young parents of the advantages of work - for them, their self respect, their children and their lives. Financially and socially they're better off.
'The problem is, we can convince a lone mother and she gets all excited about turning her life around, then she goes home to her friends - who don't work - and her family, who've never worked, and they say she's mad. That's hard to fight.
'And you have to remember, after the docks closed, some of these kids are third and even fourth-generation unemployed. It's normal to them to live on benefits - everyone around them does.'
But with a 50 per cent success rate on the scheme to help them find work, perhaps there is hope for these girls?
Leaving Knowsley, my overwhelming feeling is this: if half the Government money spent doing up council homes and planting flowers had been used to educate these girls, they might just have escaped the miserable inevitability of life in the town that marriage forgot.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1269898/The-town-marriage-forgot-My-journey-single-mother-central.html#ixzz0mZBA1bXU
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Take away the benefits system and you'll have the female think twice about getting pregnant,this is all to familair nowadays because they know the state will give them handouts in the form of child support,rent ect,ect.
Some single mothers feel they are better off on benefits
Duh! this is how thick some girls really are...do we not have Doctors,Family planning agencies,i
'I'd just gone on the Pill and no one told me I had to wait two weeks before I could, you know...
Sadly, this is the lack of aspiration [selfishness] of some girls/ women out there. I was brought up in the borough, and I have to say that yes this does go on, in alarming numbers. I think the benefits system needs to be more robust and intolerant of abuse from others.
Immigration is a hot potatoe for politicians right now, as we've saw over the past two days. To many people coming here from overseas, it's a win win society. If you don't get a job, you get benefits! Often the benfits are, as is the case here, an end in itself.
If benefits were harder to get, I think the immigration numbers would fall significantly.
Lack of aspiration is the new scourge of the working classes.
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That's great Joe, many thanks. Let's hope they stay that way
Thanks Kev,my grandson lives in Upholland but he loves coming to visit
Your sidekick has really grown a lot, since you first posted on here.. Gregs Dad Joe. What a super looking playground.. ta
An angle here which disturbs me somewhat is this :- We are looking at young unmarried women with kids, many of whom are more than happy to remain unemployed because they are already living quite well thank you very much on state benefits. They seem to want for very little, the tax payers fund their every need, and somehow or other some of them even manage to go on cruise holidays. [Thousands of working people couldn`t afford such pleasures.] They see no wrong in the situation possibly because they have become conditioned into simply accepting it as the `norm`. Now....you tell of one such person who sees herself as a possible future school teacher. [when she feels good and ready to start work, that is.] She would in all probability even get further State assistance toward her studies, but If she has seen nothing wrong in a lifestyle of `sponging` off the State, then what sort of values will she as a teacher impart to her pupils / students ? Our society is already well and truly `screwed up`, so God help the society of the future !!!
Who needs the London based tabloids to slate Merseyside when you do such a fine job on here.
The examples you give are the usual stereotypes. I know many people who live in Knowsley who work hard and want the best for their families. Some are married and some are not.
Incidentally you appear to put the blame on the women of Knowsley. Men have a role in producing and rearing kids as well you know.
Of course, all areas will have people who are hard working and industrious and striving to make a decent and respectable living. Just as those same areas will also have wasters, deadbeats, and spongers who will exploit every avenue which may enable them to live off the backs of others.
Originally Posted by sam w
The problem may perhaps be that we are all part of a system which seems to be moving ever nearer to a situation of serious imbalance. Those in employment [THE PROVIDERS] seem to be getting ever less in numbers, whilst to use your words `the usual stereotypes`[including The Spongers] seem to get ever greater in number. If a viable balance is not maintained then such a system must inevitably collapse to the detriment of ALL.
As to your comment about `slating Merseyside` then I really don`t see it as being valid. I feel pretty sure that it was not Kevs intention to be seen to be `slating Merseyside`. It would seem rather that he conducted a survey of a particular area, then simply stated his findings. So maybe those findings are a bit unpalatable, and maybe the area is uncomfortably close to home. Does that mean then that we should not speak of it ? Should we pretend that it is not there ? Come on now, let`s tell it as it is, whether it be in Liverpool, London, or where ever !!!
Not having lived or worked at home for some considerable time i could not comment on the knowsley situation but I can assure you in all of his comments you could just replace the name Knowsley with Romford (by the way this is one of the most affluent boroughs in the south east of england) or Harlow or Grays or Basildon (new town like Skem ) well known as crack city and there is always the Peoples Republic of Barking and Dagenham . There are a couple of Tower blocks in Dagenham just up from Fords that they place the last chance saloon tenants they havent paid rent or counciltax for ages but have so many kids they cant just chuck them out and council pays all of the rent ant tax anyway but the 20 storeys look like they may fall over with the weight of the Sky dishes
SKY DISHES ! An exellent observation ! `Good one` Essexscouse !
If this trend keeps up, then there will be no place for migrants.
Yes, well said Sam. Where ARE the Fathers. There are gangs and gangs of them hanging out of Kirkby pubs each week spending every penny the state gives them but it does not go to their kids. I dont agree with these Women going from cradle to grave without thinking they should contribute to the state but at least they are looking after the kids and not investing their whole lives in Wetherspoons. Having been forced to give up work due to Cancer I feel very uncomfortable even reading stuff about "benefits scroungers" as I feel like I am being lumped into a great mass I dont belong in. I was called for a medical recently and when I rang up to say I was back in treatment , for the third time in 5 years, it became clear that my long working career (35 years) makes me a target. During a previous visit to a Job Centre a member of staff and I discussed this very issue with staff as we watched men of 30 to 40 in the waiting room who had never worked throw paper cups at each other and arrange to meet in the park the staff member said "See, thats the problem. Basically, they are unemployable but you are not" Its enough to turn you into a Tory but in my Dads world men felt they were expected to work and for a period of time, the structure was there to support them. I would not want my Son to live that life.
Agree with what you say here, it is pretty stereotypical and generic, but still there is a lot of truth here looking around my area in particular, hate to say.
Originally Posted by sam w
And men do have a role, wish a lot of men would acnowledge this but in the long term they are deifnately missing out. I cant think of anything else id rather have than my children and wife, money or whatever.
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