THE VICIOUS CYCLE TRAPPING WOMEN IN POVERTY AND HOW WE CAN BREAK IT
“Women save less, bear the brunt of cuts to social services and make up the majority of the elderly poor” is one of the opening lines in Anabelle William’s 2021 bestseller Why Women are Poorer than Men. How can this be true in a society where women and men are, technically, equal before the law?
To answer this question, we researched respected organisations working on this topic and interviewed Lindsay Graham (Deputy Chair for Scotland’s Poverty and Inequality Commission), who gave us her personal views on the matter, and Sabine Goodwin (coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network — IFAN).
An important disclaimer is in order. Although we focus on the experiences of women, we acknowledge that low-income transgender, migrant and BIPOC women are likely to experience additional barriers and discriminations that trap them in poverty, which are a product of the UK’s racist, colonial and queerphobic history. Although we aimed to articulate gender with these axes of inequality, due to space constraints it remains a limited analysis. However, we compiled a list of resources at the end of this article that extend on this discussion.
WORK, AND WHY IT ISN’T WORKING FOR WOMEN
What makes women’s work situation different from that of men? In many ways, that gap boils down to their different relationship to paid work and unpaid care work.
“The traditional role women have for child rearing, and unpaid care for disabled and elderly relatives has an impact on women. For instance, older women, like me, who might have an elder relative they need to care for — that reduces the amount of hours you can do paid work. Disability, language and ethnicity come into this as well, but also wealth: if you are a woman in a traditionally low paid job in caring or hospitality, usually part-time because you have kids, it is different than if you have access to wealth and can afford any services.” says Lindsay Graham.
In other countries paternity leave is as long, and as commonly taken, as maternity leave, whereas in the UK most fathers don’t take paternity leave. This means that mothers are pushed to take time out of their careers to become full-time carers. This is especially the case for women who cannot afford childcare or social care, and are left stranded by a welfare system demanding upfront payments for these services.
By doing this unpaid work, women are less likely to secure a full-time job. According to the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) Women, Employment and Earnings report, only 59% of women are full-time employees against 87% of men. Similarly , while women make up 47% of the total workforce, they are the majority of those employed part-time (74%), temporarily (54%), on zero-hour contracts (54%) or self-employed part-time (59%). In addition, women make up 69% of low-earners — no doubt because these precarious forms of employment tend to be in the lowest paid sectors (caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical work). The takeaway is that employment is not enough to take women out of poverty, because the labour market itself structurally disadvantages women.
WHO’S AFRAID OF THE WELFARE STATE?
Women are 90% of single-parent households, 45% of which live in poverty. This further exacerbates the difficulties they already face in the job market, meaning they are more likely to require additional welfare support than…. For this reason, when the government cuts child tax credit and tax benefits, it’s women who foot the bill: since 2010 (when austerity began) 86% of cuts to tax and benefits have fallen on women’s shoulders, who lost £79 billion compared to £13 billion for men.
More than half of all disabled people in the UK are women, and they are 25% more likely to be living in poverty than their male counterparts. One of the reasons for this is that disabled women make up only 1.5% of the workforce (despite being 4% of the population), for reasons including bias or structural discrimination (i.e. lack of accessible, efficient transportation) that block their access to the job market. As a result, they are more likely to require welfare support to meet their needs: 55% of benefit claimants are disabled women., Disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic violence than non-disabled women — this problem has been exacerbated by cuts to adult social care, housing, and domestic violence support services which facilitated disabled people’s relative autonomy from their carers. Hence, austeritarian cuts to welfare at least 2010 have, in practice, been a gendered war against disabled women.
The welfare system is also extremely unjust to older women who also experience a lifetime of lower pay and unequal labour condition. At the moment, 1 in 5 women pensioners (1.25 million people) live in poverty. On average, men retire with £315,000 in pension savings, while women at the same age save only £157,000. In 2014, only 34% of women received a full state pension against over 90% of men. Migrant and BIPOC older women, as well as those identifying as LGBTQI+ are even more at risk. Thus, older women today experience the effects of a state that does not recognise the unpaid care work they gave during their lifetimes.
“I went back to nursing to help with the vaccinations recently and 75% of my team were retired women who had come back to fight the pandemic. And I just thought: it was only a global pandemic that made those older women valuable in the eyes of society! We need to rethink the contributions older women make to this world. Most of them are unpaid carers for disabled relatives, and they have to hold down jobs because — like me — the latest changes to pension age mean they are not going to get their pensions.” shares Lindsay Graham.
SO… WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS?
The UKs welfare system was largely designed to meet the needs of white, generally full-time employed, male workers. The specificities of women’s conditions in society are made invisible — which builds gender discrimination into the system as default.
Though the problems described above do not exhaust the discussion on structural gender (and other) inequalities, they are a good place to start imagining a welfare system based on care. So what are we proposing?
1. Gender-budgeting. Lindsay Graham outlines that this means asking: “what impact is this going to have on women? How are we going to measure and monitor whether policies are successful or not?”. Following WBG, these are not separate budgets for women, but budgets which recognise the different situation and needs of women and men and aim to promote gender equality. As Lindsay added “policy can be a very slow and reactive process — as we have seen with covid. So this idea needs to be thought also in terms of community planning: how they can be gender-sensitive, including in the budgets attached to them, to see how they can work for everyone who needs them, not just women.”
2. Bridge the gap between policymakers and women. As Lindsay says, “involving women in policy making, women who understand what that specific policy is about: transport, childcare… Regularly checking those policies with groups and women involved in those struggles because there is nothing like direct lived experience to inform good policy making. If someone had said to me 35 years ago ‘what will really help you?’ I would’ve said ‘well, could you pay upfront my childcare costs? That would be great, that would stop me from going into debt with a bank!’”
3. Move towards a redistributive pension system. Under the current system, you are only eligible for pension payouts after 35 years of National Insurance contributions. The WBG is campaigning for a Citizen Pension that every senior citizen of pension age would receive, irrespective of their contributions. This would begin to alleviate some of the problems faced by older women.
4. Value Unpaid care work. Our society would crumble if women stopped performing unpaid care work — women should not have to earn less in order to do it. The WBG is campaigning for welfare reforms to provide safety nets to carers throughout their lives, to ensure that neither their salaries nor pensions are penalised. As Sabine says “our current system in terms of access to benefits, job security and wage levels discriminates against women through structural inequalities. A social security safety net that embraces a Living Income for all would ensure womens’ specific needs are met. Most urgently, the two-child limit and benefit cap must be removed.”
5. Introduce universal quality social and childcare. While it is important to guarantee women doing unpaid care don’t pay the cost, it is crucial to address the root problem: the UK’s appalling social care system. A significant investment into quality social care, implemented at the local level to ensure tailored-made solutions for residents, would significantly increase women’s independence when it comes to caring for their younger and older relatives.
Written by Ines Silva, Campaigner for the Legendary Community Club
Transgenderism and poverty
Poverty in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Two-Spirit, and Other Sexual and Gender Minority (LGBTQ2S+) Communities in Canada (interesting research done in the Canadian context, that could be relevant for UK discussions)
Migrant women and poverty
 Statistics from Why Women are Poorer than Men, Anabelle Williams