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  • Author or Editor: Gideon Calder x
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The notion of ‘life chances’ is frequently invoked in political rhetoric and debate about social mobility and equality of opportunity. Typically, it is only loosely defined. This article considers the relationship between the ‘life chances’ agenda and persistent questions about the relationship between childcare and social justice. It unpacks the notion of ‘fair life chances’, considers problems associated with how life chances are measured, suggests that childcare will hold a pivotal place in any coherent ‘life chances’ agenda, and offers a defence of the crucial value of a child-focused analysis as part of the wider articulation of such an agenda. The chapter concludes with a proposal that we address childcare as a ‘relationship good’ – a uniquely valuable form of relationship, the distribution of which should be treated as a basic matter of social justice.

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Single-parent families – as seen across this book – sit in complex, shifting social positions. This is partly a reflection of the sheer range of ways in which any form of household will be shaped by wider social and economic circumstances, and in turn affect the lives of those within it. In unequal societies, it will be unsurprising to find that in general, the different circumstances that families find themselves in have a bearing on the wealth, status, wellbeing and prospects of their members. Yet, it is also because of the particular connections between single parenthood and forms of disadvantage that we have pressing reasons to seek to lessen or mute the effects of these circumstances. In comparison with others, single parents are disadvantaged in terms of income, education, health prospects and career opportunities. Because the great majority are women, they face patterns of gender disadvantage. The children of single parents are more likely to live in poverty, and less likely to do well at school. Meanwhile, their parents’ social position stems importantly from the ways in which dominant discourses around ‘appropriate’ parenting – and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parents – continue to inform both how parents see themselves and how different types of parent are perceived in contemporary society. While the family is a pivotal focal point of social policy, it is rare that single-parent families are the primary beneficiaries of policy. More than that, single parents have tended to be constructed, through policy, in ways that themselves serve to reinforce certain disadvantageous aspects of their position: as dependent, undeserving, work-avoiding or a threat to social order (Barlow et al., 2002; Davies, 2012; Phoenix, 1996; Smith, 1999).

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Age was central to how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, right from the start. In its initial responses in the early spring of 2020 – through the Coronavirus Act 2020 and surrounding measures – the UK government deployed chronological age as a marker, with the whole of the UK population over 70 identified as particularly vulnerable to the disease and subject to peremptory quarantine directives and restricted freedoms. These steps affected family members caring for people in this category – either indirectly, through their connection to the person they care for, or (also) directly, as many family carers are themselves over 70. The wellbeing of unpaid family carers has been very importantly at stake, in considering the implications of policy responses to the pandemic. Yet their position is largely hidden. So, while research evidence is beginning to gather on the impact of COVID-19 in relation to care, and particularly health care, little is known about the impact of the virus on people giving and receiving care in community settings (Woolham et al, 2020). While it has become something of a cliché to say that the experience of the pandemic has laid bare hitherto under-recognised patterns of disadvantage, the light still only rarely shines on the situations of family carers.

This absence of attention is critical, for two reasons. First, the role of family carers is growing and becoming more pivotal. Across Europe, there is an increasing reliance on family carers to provide essential care services to older and disabled people living in the community (Saraceno and Keck, 2010; Cooney and Dykstra, 2011; Kodate and Timonen, 2017).

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