Poverty in Finland examined through a gender perspective – how does one’s gender affect how poverty is experienced and what kinds of solutions are needed to combat poverty in these different groups?

When focusing on income statistics, the situation doesn’t seem too bad: during the last ten years, the risk of women falling under the poverty line in Finland has been only slightly greater than that of men. In 2016 the risk was virtually the same for both men and women. In the European Union, an individual is considered to have fallen under the poverty line when they have to survive on less than 60 percent of the median income of similar households.

Do these statistics show that poverty in Finland is equal? “In a way, yes, at least when compared to a number of other European countries. But when we look deeper past the statistics, we can find differences between sexes”, says wellbeing researcher Tuomo Laihiala, during an interview in a pub in Herttoniemi, Helsinki. He has studied Finnish poverty on the breadlines, i.e. people relying on food banks (food donations organised by charities). His doctoral thesis Disadvantageness, shame and deservingness among the recipients of charity food aid in Finland has just been peer reviewed. One of the four chapters concentrates on the wellbeing of people on the breadlines from a gender perspective. The article is co-written with Maria Ohisalo, a recent Doctor of Social Sciences and the vice chair of Vihreä liitto, the Greens of Finland.

Previous research on the gender aspects of poverty shows that female poverty in Finland often affects single mothers and retired women with the lowest pensions. Poverty amongst men is often connected to disadvantages such as substance abuse, health problems, and loneliness.

The discussion on the differences in poverty between women and men is often based on the individuals’ legal gender. The binary view of gender is used in statistics, but this often means the situation of different gender minorities is not taken into account.

“The division into women and men is justifiable for as long as gender specific differences are found and the work for reaching equality between the sexes is unfinished. On the other hand, people living alone and in rental apartments are at risk of poverty despite their gender”, says Laihiala, and admits that there is a need for poverty studies that take into account different gender minorities.

The breadline make women’s poverty visible

Tuomo Laihiala and the rest of the research group interviewed approximately 3,500 individuals on the breadlines between 2012 and 2013. The research project led by Juho Saari examined who the Finns on the breadline are, and how poverty manifested itself for them.

The material shows examples of both male and female ‘typical poverty’, as the researchers call the phenomenon.

“The largest groups on the breadline are elderly, pensioned women on one hand, and on the other, men – either elderly or still at working age – who have been unemployed for a long period of time. The more general poverty statistics also prove that these are the groups most likely to suffer from long-term poverty”, Laihiala states.

Laihiala is especially worried about people living in long-term poverty: having no hope of the situation getting better has an effect on wellbeing and life management.

“Long-term poverty manifests in hopelessness and lack of vision. For example, when an individual has been unemployed for a longer period of time, it becomes harder and harder to believe in finding work and rising from poverty”, he explains.

Long-term poverty should concern us, because it is a growing phenomenon in Finland: the amount of permanently poor people has more than doubled since the economic depression in the 1990s.

The group of people with the greatest risk of long-term poverty in the Finnish society is elderly women. For women over 74 years old the risk of long-term poverty is 26.5 percent, which is more than double compared to the risk for men. This can be accounted for by women’s shorter – or non-existent – careers that lead to small or negligible pensions.

But when it comes to the breadline, there are as many women as there are men.

Although the number of women and men living at the edge of poverty is approximately the same, most of the worse off individuals are men. Men make up the majority of groups such as substance abusers and the homeless, and their mortality and suicide rates are higher than those of women, as Laihiala and Ohisalo state in their article (2017). The typical customer for counselling services for substance abusers is a man whose life is plagued by loneliness, homelessness, weak positioning in the employment market, and an overall fragile socioeconomic status.

But when it comes to the breadline, there are as many women as there are men.

“It’s interesting. Looking at people on the breadline brings out women’s poverty in a way we might not be used to seeing. Disadvantaged men are somehow more visible”, Laihiala ponders. He points through the pub window towards the Herttoniemi subway station, where a group of men carrying bags filled with bottles is gathering.

So it is: a poor woman lives on her guaranteed pension in a rental apartment, using her scarce income on medication, for example. Her poverty is not visible outside the walls of her apartment.

The statistics show that men make up the majority of the worst-off groups, so why is it they are not over-represented on the breadline?

“The most important reason for being on the breadlines is not having enough income to cover the costs of living. While women report having trouble covering the costs of living with their income more often than men, men are more likely to be over-indebted. In addition to financial problems, many men face social and health problems. When problems accumulate, the help received from social welfare is no longer enough. The homeless may not have a place to prepare meals from the ingredients received, and a person with a disability or problems with substance abuse may not be able to come and stand in line for the food”, Laihiala says.

Some of the providers of food aid require the service user to be sober, which also has an effect.  This is why low threshold services aimed at the homeless and people with substance abuse are a better way to reach those living in the deepest poverty.

What about immigrant women?

Examining an individual’s risk of poverty based on their own or their parents’ country of origin adds new dimensions to the statistics. According to Statistics Finland, a person is defined to have an immigrant background if both their parents or their only known parent is born outside of Finland. The poverty risk of individuals with immigrant backgrounds is proven to be higher than that of non-immigrants, and the most significant reason for this is their lower employment rate.

Work and well-being among persons of foreign origin in Finland (UTH), a survey by Statistics Finland, National Institute for Health and Welfare, and Finnish Institute of Occupational Health shows that the lower employment rate of immigrants in general is nearly completely explained by the low employment rate among women with foreign origin: in 2014 the employment rate of women with foreign origin was 56 per cent, while 73 per cent of women with Finnish background were employed. The numbers in the study do not include the asylum seekers that arrived in Finland in 2015.

The study suggests that reasons for the low employment rates can be found in immigrant women’s generally early motherhood, weak language skills, low education, and scarce work experience. It is important to note that the numbers vary significantly based on the country of origin and its situation.

The Multicultural Women’s Association in Finland, Monika , is aware of the phenomenon.

“For women from outside Finland the problems include the employers’ high demands for language skills as well as prejudice, attitudes, and sometimes downright racism.”

“There are a number of reasons behind the low employment rates. Unequal distribution of the caring responsibilities in families and gender-based structural discrimination in the labour market are relevant problems not only for women with immigrant backgrounds, but Finnish women as well. For women from outside Finland the problems include the employers’ high demands for language skills as well as prejudice, attitudes, and sometimes downright racism”, says Jenni Tuominen, executive director at the association.

Bahar Mozaffari is the Refugee Woman of the Year 2017 and the chair of Monika association, but she weighs the matter based on her own experiences in Iran, her country of origin, as well as on her work as a specialist on immigration services at the Uusimaa Employment and Economic Development Office. Mozaffari moved to Finland in 2006 as a quota refugee.

“One of the reasons behind low employment rates is the type of identity women are raised into, being used to fulfilling the expectations of others. This is particularly true among women who come from countries where women are traditionally not a part of the work force, and where weaker rights for women are enshrined in law”, Mozaffari says, emphasising that the situation differs significantly from one country to another.

“The ones with the highest risk of poverty are those who have not had access to education in their country of origin and whose ability to read and write their mother tongue is weak or non-existent”, Jenni Tuominen adds.

Tuominen states that inequality in the family, especially combined with control and violence, hinders employment and integration in general. The same mechanisms can be found in Finnish families as well. Settling into traditional gender and family roles can provide a feeling of safety in the new country, especially if the immigrants face prejudice and racism from the mainstream population.

The solution lies in changing the structures

The reasons behind poverty are often structural, and so the solutions should be.

Poverty among retired women can be reduced by making the pensions higher. Dividing caring responsibilities more equally between men and women, taking action against gender-based discrimination in working life, and dividing the costs of parenthood more equally between employers would affect women’s pensions. The poverty risk of single parents can be reduced by creating specific support mechanisms according to their needs. Raising the level of guaranteed pension could help, but as Tuomo Laihiala points out, this is not enough on its own.

“Especially those living alone in rental apartments in the Helsinki region have extremely high housing costs. Increasing the guaranteed pension by 15 euros does not help much, if at the same time the rent is increased by 20 euros, or the house goes under renovation”, he states.

Tuominen and Mozaffari call for structural changes as well. “It’s important to provide women who move to Finland with information on education possibilities, work life, and employment in Finland, in addition to the Finnish classes they are offered. Better understanding of their skills and continuing vocational training is needed when the woman has a degree or work experience from the country of origin. The process of integration and the actions taken to help employment should be tailored for the individual in question”, Tuominen says.

Actions should be taken against structural discrimination and racism as well: a person’s name or appearance might prevent them from acquiring work even when their language skills are good and the integration process has been successful.

Gender roles are a part of social structures. The cultural ideal of a male breadwinner is one example; the woman taking on the caring responsibilities both inside the family and in society is another. Dividing the caring responsibilities more equally would loosen up structures for everyone, despite their background.

Mozaffari wants to encourage immigrant women to actively consider their identities, gender roles, and upbringing – supervised groups and discussions often make the task easier.

“For example the female identity of Iranian women is structurally defined from the outside: a woman is primarily a mother, a sister, and a daughter. These issues should be discussed immediately after immigration. If they are not discussed, female identities and unequal gender roles are easily passed on to future generations. Respect and listening to the women is important when discussing these matters”, she describes.

Laihiala hopes to see a change in gender roles as well: “male culture needs a change, to prevent the accumulation of different social problems and weak quality of life for men. Work and other activities that enhance the feeling of meaningfulness need to be developed to provide men with ways out of male-typical social exclusion. The lives of those over-indebted can be made easier by making the ways of payment collection more reasonable.”

What Laihiala is describing is the deliberate exclusion of certain groups from society – while we could do quite the opposite. “We know which groups are at risk of social exclusion, and we know the reasons behind it. Not taking action is called deliberate exclusion. It would be far more cost efficient to take action early on than to provide for a large group of people living in extreme poverty”, Laihiala states with frustration.

It is clear that in order to effectively combat poverty, we cannot forget about the gender perspective.


This article was originally published in Finnish by Vihreä Tuuma.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.