By Jan Nielsen
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How austerity hurts women

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Underlying the sexism women experience is a structural oppression based on women’s role in the family, exacerbated by austerity, writes Jan Nielsen
Issue 443

The #MeToo campaign has rightly shone a glaring light on the misogyny and discrimination that women experience. Less publicised has been the striking increase in inequality that women are experiencing as a result of austerity, cuts to services and changes to the benefits system.

Recent government statistics show that women will shoulder a startling 85 percent of the burden of the government’s cuts to social security and tax changes by 2020. They also show that women’s incomes are being hit twice as hard as men’s as a result of changes to the tax and benefit system.

This can only be explained by understanding the continuing role that women play in the family as the main carers, which is now being strongly reinforced by austerity. The family has proved to be remarkably adaptable to changing circumstances throughout the existence of capitalism and before, and as this article argues, it continues to shape the lives of women today living, as millions do, at the sharp end of neoliberalism.

The historical division of labour in the family means that women still do most of the unpaid work in the home. In a period of austerity, where services that previously supported the family are cut, it is women who are expected to take on these additional caring responsibilities and juggle these with paid employment.

Lower rates of pay

So although there are now more women in paid employment than at any time in history, they are far more likely than men to work part time or have temporary employment — which, on average, have lower rates of pay than full-time, permanent employment. Women also make up two-thirds of public sector workers, who have experienced year after year of pay freezes.

Part time and temporary work is commonly referred to as “flexible working” — as if somehow it helps women juggle family responsibilities and paid work. In reality it denies large numbers of women any form of pay progression and they miss out on the earnings growth associated with staying in a permanent job.

For men, employment status is essentially unaffected by the arrival of a first child, while women are significantly more likely to still be in part-time jobs when their first child reaches adulthood. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, by the time a first child has reached the age of 20, mothers earn almost a third less per hour, on average, than similarly educated fathers.

And of course, not all women suffer — cuts and changes to benefits hit working class women hardest. Those with the means to pay for private services such as childcare or healthcare for elderly or sick relatives are able to escape at least some of the burden.

As the UN Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights pointed out recently, “the UK government has pursued policies for the past eight years that were intended to fall most heavily on the poorest, making Theresa May’s promises to support working families a cruel joke. With at least 5 million children going to school hungry behind each of them is a mother trying to eke out an income that just will no longer stretch.”

Universal Credit at a glance

The proposed changes to Universal Credit will have a particular impact on women because a higher proportion of women’s income is made up from benefits (19 percent) than men (8 percent). One of the main criticisms of UC has been that its structure provides greater incentives for single-earner households and penalises two-earner households through benefit reductions.

It is women who are usually the “second earner”, therefore they will face serious disincentives to go out to work or increase their hours. But single parents, of which almost nine out of ten are women, and the social group with the highest poverty risk (at 50 percent), are also vulnerable.

According to Ellie Mae MacDonald of the London School of Economics, women “are expected to be on average £2,380 a year worse off, while families with two children lose £1,100 on average and those with three children lose £2,540. Other benefit changes such as the restriction of the Sure Start Maternity Grant, the two-child limit on child benefits [since ditched for children born before 2017] and the ban on housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds, are also likely to damage women’s incomes more than men’s”.

This makes the recent test case victory in the courts for four single mothers supported by the child poverty action group particularly important. The women had argued a “fundamental problem” with the scheme meant their monthly payments varied enormously, and they had ended up out of pocket.

The high court ruled the Department of Work and Pensions had wrongly interpreted UC regulations. The ruling, which the DWP could yet appeal, could affect tens of thousands of people if it remains in place.

The family is the place where we are supposed to find unconditional love, support and human happiness. But cuts and falling incomes create serious stress and tensions.

A Labour Party think tank report in 2011, “The Modern British Family”, studied the impact of austerity on family life. The report reads like a catalogue of despair. The stress of balancing low budgets, long working hours and the demands of childcare takes a serious toll on the quality of relationships within the family. As working hours increase for British workers 83 percent of parents in the study said that they feel squeezed for time; 73 percent of those with children say it’s a struggle to make money last the month.

The report concluded that families feel tired, stressed and under pressure and that all of the problems they face link back to feeling financially stretched. Parents (dads included) spoke about how in an ideal world they would like to spend more time with their children, but work prevents that. Most participants in the study when asked to sum up their family experience in one word talked about “struggle” and “stress”. Only one participant talked about their family as happy.

Time or money

These findings on the unhappiness of family life under austerity are echoed in a more recent study by The Modern Families Index 2017, with over a third of the family participants saying that they haven’t got enough time or money and nearly half saying that over the last two years it has become financially more difficult to raise a family. One in five parents working full time is putting in five extra weeks a year in unpaid work because of management culture and pressure.
It should be no surprise that these stresses in the home can erupt into aggression and violence, particularly against women and children.

When families turn violent

The Femicide Census annual analysis by the charity Women’s Aid collates information on women killed by men. In 2016, 113 women were killed by men — 88 percent of them by someone they knew, more than two thirds by a current or former partner. Of those killed by a partner, 83 percent were killed at their own home or the home they shared with the perpetrator.

Because of a combination of the dire lack of affordable social housing and cuts in the number of safe places in refuges it is extremely difficult for working class women to escape unhappy and abusive relationships.

At present demand for refuge places far outstrips supply. The government’s new proposed funding model will remove short term supported housing from the welfare system. This means that vulnerable women will not be able to claim housing benefit to pay for safe accommodation.

Many refuges have already been shut, closing their doors to some of the most vulnerable women and children in society and forcing them to continue to live in serious danger of abuse. It is hard not to see the number deaths rising.

The problems exacerbated by austerity don’t stop after the children have grown up and left home. For many parents it seems that retirement is when the work really starts. Grandparents are often now referred to as “the sandwich generation” — people who care for ageing parents while supporting their children and grandchildren.

One in five people aged 50 to 64 in the UK are informal carers for an older family member. Over 80 percent of these are women. A third of the of the UK’s 6.5 million informal carers are aged 65 and over. The number of those aged 75 and over has increased by over a third since 2001, with the density of women increasing because they live longer.

What is now termed “Grannynannying” is also on the increase. An estimated 2 million grandparents, mostly women, deplete their state pension by giving up work, reducing their hours or taking time off to help their adult children cope with soaring childcare costs and pressure of work. According to a YouGov poll in 2017, two-fifths of the nation’s grandparents over the age of 50 take regular care of their grandchildren — a total of 5 million people.

The survey went on to show that 12 percent were looking after their grandchildren at least once a day, 18 percent were looking after them four to six times a week and 38 percent two to three times a week.

Just over half of these grandparents providing regular care did so for up to five years and a further 28 percent did so for between five and ten years, with well over half (57 percent) saying their help had enabled their own child/children to work more to support their family. This is a service which allows young mothers to work outside the home. So grandmothers continue to work to support their children to support their children.

In addition it is estimated that grandparents contribute £9 billion annually to clothes, toys and hobbies, pocket money, holidays and savings, forcing 17 percent of grandparents to dip into savings, and 5 percent to go into debt.

Competing pressures

While they are still relatively young, many older women face competing pressures to continue in the paid workforce under the government’s extending working lives agenda and the rise in the state pension age. But they are also expected to — and do — care for their grandchildren, their parents and sometimes a partner’s deteriorating health.

Let’s also remember that due to austerity 3.9 million of these older women have been forced to wait up to an extra six years to get their pensions. The lack of sufficient information about the rise in pensionable age meant they did not find out about it until they reached 60, leaving them with no time to make alternative plans.

Many of these women now find themselves in serious financial difficulties with all the accompanying extreme stress and hardship. It is deeply ironic that these changes have been carried out in the name of equal treatment of women.

Over 100 years ago it was common to talk about how the women fighting for suffrage fought “with one hand tied behind us”. What the experience of women under austerity today shows is that this is still the case and remains so into old age. It is therefore a tribute to the many women who have been an inspiration in the recent fightbacks against austerity and neoliberalism.

Just a cursory look at some of the most recent struggles shows that working class women were the unsung heroes of the admittedly low resistance. In 2016 teaching assistants in Derby and Durham, 95 percent of whom are female, took action against pay cuts of up to 25 percent. Female hospital workers, cleaners, hostesses and catering staff took on the multinational private contractor Aramark in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. It was two Ecuadorian cleaners, members of the United Women of the World Union, who launched the campaign against Philip Green’s Top Shop for a living wage.

In contrast to previous generations, women are now the largest users of services and the majority of the public sector labour force. This situation lends itself to the possibility of an increased level of struggle by women when these services are attacked.

Women now make up the majority of union members in the UK and are more likely to be unionised. Tweny six percent of female employees were union members in 2016 compared with 21 percent of male employees. The typical trade unionist today is a woman in her 40s working in the public sector. We may be beginning to see a new wave of activity by women which reflects their increasing intolerance of inequality and oppression and which is shaped by their role as workers and their further burden as primary carers in a time of cuts to the welfare state.

In the aftermath of the Second World War the construction of the welfare state saw the introduction of child benefit, affordable housing, nurseries, day centres for the elderly and those with disabilities, and the home care service, which all afforded women some level of family support which freed them to go out to work. They were able to gain a level of independence their mothers had never experienced. That independence gave women the freedom to engage in paid work and to become members of trade unions. It also fed the rise of second wave feminism which gave voice to the particular oppression that women experience.

Now women are finding that we have to fight for the services we need all over again, but in a new, encouraging ideological era of #MeToo. The ninth year of austerity could bring a rising resistance in which women could very well be to the fore.

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