What does the Shannon Matthews Case Suggest about Family Life in Modern Britain

This essay will examine and discuss whether the Matthews family is a typical representation of family life in modern Britain. It will take a look at social class and investigate whether this effects the morals and mechanics of family units today, taking into account contributing factors such as financial issues, the benefit system and changing values in the 21st century.
Nine year old Shannon Matthews from Dewsbury, West Yorks, went missing for a period of 24 days in February this year, in a suspected kidnapping. Shannon was found a short distance from her home, and later media coverage informed us that despite her publicised pleas for Shannon’s safe return, her mother Karen, had known of her whereabouts the whole time. Since her release Shannon has remained in the care of social services. Her mother has been charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice.
Shannon’s stepfather Craig Meehan was charged with possessing indecent images of children. Public and media speculation suggests that the kidnapping was little more then a publicity stunt that went wrong. Police officers are examining alleged similarities between Shannon’s disappearance and a storyline from the Channel 4 drama series ‘Shameless’ that was shown shortly before the nine-year-old vanished. Stokes, P (2008) Shannon Matthews’ mother charged over disappearance. Telegraph. 9 June.

As the family depicted in ‘Shameless’, The Matthews family live within a typical example of an unloved and unkempt council estate. According to the local newspaper, The Dewsbury Reporter, Moorside is “…one of the most deprived areas in the country” This is backed up by information collated in the ‘Index of Deprivation 2007′. Kirklees, the county in which the town of Dewsbury is located has been deemed as the 12th worst district in England in terms of low income levels, high crime rates, health deprivation and unemployment. Only 11.2% of the 32’482 other LSOA’s are in a worse state than Moorside itself.
Karen Matthews is unmarried, has seven children by five different fathers, only four of which reside with her. She comes from a working class family and is one of seven siblings, her parents were married and both worked, as does her sister who also has seven children, by one man, her husband. Despite the differences between her and her family, Karen is not an exceptional case within her surroundings, or for that matter, in other deprived areas around the country.
” …here was an example of Britain’s feckless but fecund underclass, churning out children at a reckless rate, cushioned by benefits and permanently estranged from the world of work.” Tweedie, N (2008) Another side to Shannon Matthews’ Moorside. Telegraph. 27 September
Britain’s social classes were originally divided into three distinct social groups, these represented an individuals level of education, occupation and financial status; The Upper, Middle and Lower/Working classes. Since the welfare system was created a new class has begun to emerge.
The Underclass, consists of people that are reliant on state benefits for the majority of their income. Not only does it include; teenage and single mothers who are unable or unwilling to work, and temporary benefit claimants who are trying to get back on their feet, but also; layabouts, high school drop outs, drug addicts and those involved in criminal activities. Many of the underclass are quite happy to live and raise their children on state benefits.
Through an attempt to help the needy the welfare state has created a dependency culture with no incentive to work, marry or educate themselves and who expect handouts to survive. The benefit system highlights the perks of not working, recipients not only receive free money from the state but can also be entitled to free health care, interest free loans and free or discounted accommodation and council tax. Council housing estates increase the segregation of the underclass from the rest of society and creates a never ending social circle of crime, dependency and insolence. People who live on these estates rarely have any positive influences around them, grouping deprived families together in one community leaves them with nobody to learn from except each other.
“Council estates became places of last resort for people who had failed to keep up. They have been given this label of the ‘underclass’ ….and begin to act like worthless people. So you get domestic violence, alcohol abuse and family breakdown.” (Estates; An Intimate history – Lynsey Hanley)
It is not only the welfare system and morals of the lower classes that have brought about changes to modern society and family life, prior to the 20th century, women married young, stayed home and raised their children. After the war women’s aspirations began to change as they questioned their positions as wives and mothers. It was within the same era that contraception became commonly available and divorce was liberalised. People were no longer restricted by so many rules, regulations and assumptions regarding what kind of behaviour was acceptable and as the 20th century progressed this new state of mind caused the traditional aspects of family life to change tremendously.
People no longer had to marry before beginning a sexual relationship or starting a family, and could choose divorce when things didn’t work out the way they had expected. In modern society it is acceptable for both parents to work, and for children to attend childcare settings whilst their parents are occupied. In some ways working families are depriving their children of the necessary parental interactions needed to aid their development. In their aspirations to make more money in order to keep up with modern living parents are having to prioritise their jobs over their families.
Halsey A H Quoted in Dennis N and Erdos G Families without Fatherhood, 1993 “..children of parents who do not follow the traditional norm (i.e. taking on personal, active and long-term responsibility for the social upbringing of the children they generate) are thereby disadvantaged in many major aspects of their chances of living a successful life. On the evidence available such children tend to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime, and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered..”
Shannon Matthews family is not a valid representation of family life in modern Britain. Families now come in many shapes and sizes and are defined by much broader categories. It would be stereotypical to assume that untraditional family units or those that are further down the social ladder are more likely to have come from an unstable family background and themselves incapable of creating and sustaining a successful family life. Despite the fact that modern life has altered the mechanics of the family unit, many families/parents are still striving to provide for their children in the best way that they can, regardless of social status.
Parents from lower and underclass backgrounds are just as likely to provide loving and caring parenting and create insightful and ambitious children as those from other classes. In comparison, those from the upper and middle classes are just as likely to create dysfunctional family units where the children feel neglected and unloved because of their parents busy lifestyles. It is the ignorance of individuals that play the main part in the creation of dysfunctional families and the negative psychological issues this then creates for those within that family. Overall an individuals personal strengths, weaknesses and morals are what cause them to make their choices in life regardless of nature, nurture and social grouping.

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New York University

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