Austerity in Britain has a face. That face is female. That face is a mother of a dependent child. A mother with a job – although a job she may well lose in the next couple of years through no fault of her own. A very poor paying, part-time job, renting at high cost in the private sector, in a home that’s poorly insulated and expensive to heat.
Of course that’s not true of every victim of Britain’s government cutbacks, but it’s a model that represents a very high percentage, a gender bias that may be more extreme than anywhere else in Europe.
As the Fawcett Society, Britain’s leading women’s rights and gender equality charity (declaration of interest, I’m a trustee) has identified, there are three main ways in which women are being chiefly hit by the cuts:
1. Benefits and services
On average a fifth of British women’s income comes from benefits. The figure for men is one-tenth. That looks set to get closer to balance, but not because women have more income from other sources, or more time to earn it. Of the £14.9bn (€18.5bn) raised from the government’s five spending reviews since 2010, £11.1bn (€13.8) is being taken from the pockets of women. The results of last year’s comprehensive spending review were particularly stark. Lone parents lost 18% of their income (92% are female). (And there are nearly 2m such households in Britain, home to 24% of Britain’s children.) Lone pensioners lose 11%. In contrast most other household types lost 6-7%
Chief impact comes from changes to working tax credits (which were used by the previous Labour government to make up for low pay, with the minimum wage insufficient for living in many parts of the country, particularly London and the South East), child benefit and cuts to public sector pension conditions. Additionally, childcare support has been cut back, which is likely to hit single parents particularly hard. (In the UK parents give 33% of net family income to childcare – the comparable figures in France is 11%.)
The tax credit changes are going to hit already vulnerable households – those with one part-time worker, either because that worker is a single parent, or very often because the family lives in an area where little work is available and only one has secured a half-time job. Previously 16 hours of work was required for eligibility, but that’s now been lifted to 24 hours. The government appears to have assumed that working hours are a simple matter of worker choice, but as a number of newspaper accounts have recorded since, many workers are simply not able to find the extra hours.
There’s been surprisingly little debate about it, but the cuts to child benefit (94% of which is paid to the female parent) are also hugely significant, and not just in financial terms. The current rate is £20.30 per week (€25.20) for the first child and £13.40 per week (€16.64) for others. That level has been frozen until 2014, and its universality ended, with high-earning households losing it. That removes an important principle, hard-fought-for by a handful of women members of parliament after the Second World War, that the state should acknowledge the contribution made by those raising children (and ignores the important fact that household income and assets are not necessarily equally available to all members of a household).
Housing benefit (53% of which is claimed by female single-headed households, with 25% to male-headed and 22% to couples) is being slashed. The costs of it have risen enormously, but that reflects the fact that the proportion of social housing has fallen and the costs of private rentals are rising, particularly in the South East and London, with house prices. And almost 1 million of its recipients are working – another reflection of the fact that companies are failing to pay adequate wages (and the Labour and now Conservative/Liberal Democrat government have failed to do anything about it.)
It seems almost every government action you examine has a strongly negative impact on women, or a relatively beneficial effect for men. The much-trumpeted policy of the Liberal Democrats of a rise at the level at which tax starts to be paid from £7,475 (€9,281) and £8,105 (€10,063) will see, the respected Women’s Budget Group has calculated, 57% male beneficiaries, with women overall gaining £514 (€638) million and men £680 (€844) million.
In a different report the same group looked at indirect tax changes, including an end to the fuel duty escalator (which had automatically lifted petrol prices) and the rise in VAT. It found that the net impact of indirect tax changes was to benefit single men and households with male earners most, while benefitting pensioner households the least. Far less regressive arrangements could have been made, the group concludes.
2. Public sector jobs
Britain’s workforce is strongly gendered by occupation, and by employer type. About 64% of public sector workers are female (the figure is 41% in the private sector). In local government the figure’s 75%.
There’s good reason for women to have moved towards the public sector when they can. In 2010 the median gender pay differential in the public sector was 9.2%, in the private sector 18.4%. And benefits such as maternity leave, parental and care leave are better.
The government appears to have assumed that working hours are a simple matter of worker choice, but as a number of newspaper accounts have recorded since, many workers are simply not able to find the extra hours.
But this means that, given an estimated 700,000 public sector workers are expected to lose their jobs by 2015 due to government cutbacks, by April 2012 the number of unemployed women had reached 1.14 million, the highest figure since 1987. While there are still more unemployed men, women are catching up fast.
Additionally, even for women who manage to hang on to their jobs, pay and related benefits in the public sector are falling fast. Large numbers of local government workers are now into their third year without a pay rise. Given Britain’s high inflation rate, they’ve seen a cut of around 15% in real terms in the value of their incomes. Additionally, pension changes, which provoked the biggest strike in a generation, will also have a big impact. This is despite the fact that to take the example of local government pensions, the mean average pension is only £4,200 a year, with the average for women £2,870.
3. Increasing care and community responsibilities
On average British women do 4 hours and 15 minutes of unpaid work a day, compared to men’s 2 hours and 18 minutes. Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea is that the government should step out of any areas of caring and community responsibilities, and “the community” should take up the roles. While men have on average an extra half hour a day of free time than women, there’s little evidence that this is where the slack will be taken up. Social expectations and gender roles mean that these chiefly caring responsibilities are likely to fall most heavily on women.
Already, 40% of women in employment rely on relatives for childcare (a majority of them female), and one in four women in their 50s are caring for a disabled or frail elderly relative. The pension age for women is being lifted rapidly – to 65, then 66 by October 2020. (It was 60 only a few years ago.) The question arises – if they do continue working, who’s going to do the caring?
Is this “collateral damage” or a broader plan?
There’s been little public discussion of this, but a strongly socially conservative, Christian group of MPs makes up a significant proportion of the recent tranche of new Tory MPs. That’s been most visible on the issue of abortion, but there are also signs among Tory MPs well beyond this group that they are seeking to move back to a “traditional”, male-breadwinner, female carer family model.
The Universities minister, David Willetts, claimed feminism was the “single biggest factor” to blame for the lack of social mobility in Britain – the income of the “male breadwinner” that counts for him. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has been a strong proponent of traditional marriage, on the basis that it is a more stable environment for the raising of children. A paper by his department this year said: “The government is clear that marriage should be supported and encouraged.” David Cameron has frequently promised tax breaks for married (heterosexual) couples, although has yet to be able to get it through coalition negotiations (according to newspaper reports).
Writing in the Feminist Review, Dr Clare Hemmings, of the London School of Economics Gender Institute, concluded that the coalition was basing its whole approach to society on traditional “family values” that assumed a middle-class heterosexual family with the women staying at home.
The existing changes to tax credits will force some women to stop working – they would actually be paying to work. This will have for them lifelong consequences – their skills and earning potential will be reduced, and given the increasing focus on private pensions, it is likely to sentence them to an old age of poverty. But even more significantly, the proposed introduction of universal credit in 2013 (supposed to simplify the benefits system) is going to further discourage many women from working. The Women’s Budget Group has calculated that a second earner working 16 hours on £6.08 per hour will lose 82% of her weekly income. Currently under the pre-April 2012 system she lost 53%.
The planned new system strengthens the emphasis on household rather than individual incomes – which is increasingly likely to be the male “head of household”. That could have huge implications – there’s evidence that women are regarded as responsible for the needs of children, and are more likely to spend the money available on household essentials rather than personal luxuries.
We have now a generation, or even two generations, of women who’ve assumed their right to work – and understood that they can’t necessarily rely on a male breadwinner for their financial future (and increasingly know that they can’t rely on the state). And we have an household system in Britain that’s predicated on two incomes – essential in most cases for the purchase of the home, which successive governments of both stripes have regarded as an aspiration that should be held by all households, and under current wage and rental levels, also to maintain a rented home.
The existing changes to tax credits will force some women to stop working – they would actually be paying to work. This will have for them lifelong consequences – their skills and earning potential will be reduced, and given the increasing focus on private pensions, it is likely to sentence them to an old age of poverty.
I’m increasingly returning to the words of the radical historian Sheila Rowbotham: “We’ve learned now that you can go backwards. In the Seventies we assumed once you made a gain it would stay there.”
The Green Party response
The Green Party has spoken out strongly against benefit cuts, and the whole austerity agenda in the UK. It was a strong opponent to the government’s recent decision to cut the top tax rate from 50% to 45% for earnings over £150,000 a year – which will certainly more strongly benefit men than women. In the 2010 general election, it presented a fully costed “no-cuts” budget, with the funding made up by cracking down on corporate and rich individual tax evasion and avoidance, raising of tax on large corporations and with a personal tax rate of 50% starting at £100,000. It has been the only party to maintain this position, with the largest opposition party, Labour, saying that it would make the same cuts as the government, just more slowly.
In the recent London mayoral/Assembly elections, a push to promote the London Living Wage through the creation of a Fair Pay Mark for companies would have been particularly helpful to women (one in ten fulltime workers and two in five parttimers are paid less than the living wage, in both cases a majority of women). The London manifesto also stressed the need for affordable childcare, and for government provision/funding of social services, not relying on voluntary efforts.
More fundamentally, the Green Party of England and Wales supports the idea of a citizens’ income, which acknowledges that every member of a society has a right to be supported by it. This could have a transformational impact on the lives of women (and men).