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The cost of living crisis and its impact on women’s services

The National Picture

Gendered poverty is largely explained by the unequal position of women in society which is exacerbated by caring status, ethnicity, health, age, sexuality, gender identity and disability. Smallwood also recognises that systems such as the labour market, the design of social security and the role of paid and unpaid care all contribute to gendered poverty.

With a gender-lens approach, we can see how the cost of living crisis reinforces existing inequalities.

The latest research from our grant partner, the Women’s Budget Group (WBG), provides a national picture of this issue. You can read the full report here. Summary below:

Soaring fuel costs could put women’s jobs at risk according to a new report published by the Women’s Budget Group today.

This is on top of the impact that record-high inflation is having on women’s living standards which, due to women’s lower incomes and savings, is making it harder for them to cope.

Rising food prices are a particular strain on single mothers’ budgets, as they spend a higher proportion of their income on food, while higher energy bills are a big concern for larger families. As the shock absorbers of poverty, women will be more likely to suffer the impact of scarce resources in the coming winter.

This reality will be compounded in light of the 23 September mini budget announcement from the Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. We share the following response by the Women’s Budget Group Director, Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, which encapsulate the concerns of the Smallwood Trust :

“Far from putting more money in people’s pockets, the nearly £45bn a year of tax cuts announced today by Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng won’t help those hit hardest by the cost of living. These tax cuts benefit the already wealthy – mainly men – while people who are low-paid, or out of the labour market – mainly poor women – are left behind.”

In June 2022 we began our Cost of Living Fund for individuals which is based on previous WBG research that identified women who are most at risk of poverty. This is in response to the overwhelming 300% increase in demand from women requesting support to help with rising costs, such as energy bills, fuel prices, food and basic essentials.

Feedback from Smallwood grant partners

Over the past week we asked for qualitative feedback from existing grant partners on how the cost of living crisis is affecting their beneficiaries and their organisations – this is a snapshot of what they said:

For women

Basic essential needs are not being met forcing more women and their families into poverty – all of the grant partners we contacted reported back that they are providing food, toiletries, financial assistance with bills, school uniforms, payment of priority debt such as rent arrears, flooring, beds, other everyday living expenses.

As a result of this, demand and destitution is increasing with women and their families not being able to feed or support themselves. Sarah Parry, Programme Manager at Inspire at St Peter’s highlights the following:

“We are now finding that there is a higher level of desperation amongst women in our community. Women literally cannot feed themselves and their children, in my career I have never seen a greater step towards absolute poverty”

This will disproportionately affect women most vulnerable to poverty. The Women’s Budget Group reports that a deterioration in living standards will have the greatest impact on disabled women, ethnic minority women and single mothers. Because of such desperate situations we found that mental health problems, anxiety and depression are increasing and/or being exacerbated.

Women are also staying in abusive relationships in order to pay bills or considering going back to unsafe environments (eg. sex work). This was echoed by Sue Willoughby, Operations Manager at A Way Out:

“ [We have seen an] increase in demand for our services. For example, a rise in the number of women at risk of selling sex to fund their outgoings and the consequential impact on emotional, mental and physical health of these clients.”

Many women our grant partners support have experienced/are currently experiencing domestic violence and report that the cost of living crisis is being weaponised by perpetrators to further control women and restrict their independence.

Huge fear of how women and their families will cope post-October. Jo Hughes, Co Ordinator of Financial Resilience and Open Access at Venus Charity, highlights how frightening this is:

“Families are at a cliff edge and already struggling on their tight budgets and trying to tighten them even more is impossible in most cases. As workers we feel unable to offer any solutions to those crying out for help and feel at a total loss ourselves.”

Charlotte Almond, Strategy and Business Development Manager from Staffordshire Women’s Aid notes the cost of living crisis is being used by perpetrators to further control women and restrict their independence. This is a sentiment that has been echoed across the Violence Against Women and Girls sector. 

In the public sphere, grant partners shared concerns that the women they support have no political voice or representation, therefore they feel left out or forgotten in national debates around emotional and financial wellbeing.

For organisations

Smallwood grant partners underlined worries about well-being and burn out of staff, who having come through the height of the pandemic, and are now faced with the cost of living crisis demands. Sharon from Zinthiya Trust shared the following:

“As people become more and more desperate they are becoming angry and frustrated and often this is directed at us/our advisers as we are one of the few organisations locally that offers face to face support.”

Staff are also struggling to make ends meet as grant and commissioning contracts, which fund a lot of staff posts in the women’s sector, will not include an uplift anywhere near the rise in inflation. Research also suggests that lower pay in the women’s sector is more prevalent than other parts of the voluntary sector in general and this then leads to worry about staff leaving to get better wages elsewhere. Ciiku Sondergaard, Programme Director of 4Wings:

“With the cost of living rising, there is a risk we will lose team members as they will be looking to raise their wages to meet the costs, where before they have been ready to work voluntarily bridging gaps until funding is secured.”

Meanwhile local authority cuts to services is increasing demand on women’s led services as women have no where else to turn to. Simultaneously grant partners report increasing competition for grant funds from ‘non-specialist’ organisations.

Those organisations with women’s centres or refuges seeing a huge spike in utility bill increases which have not been previously budgeted for or grants will not cover for the future. In addition to this, very low levels of reserves can restrict the ability for smaller organisations to respond more effectively. Wayne Ingram, Chief Operating Officer of Support and Mentoring Enabling Entrepreneurship expands on this:

“We have just received our electricity bill at the SAMEE centre and the increase in cost has more than doubled. This unpredicted surge in utility costs was not factored into the budgets of successful grant applications from last year, so the balance has to come from our fast depleting reserves.”

Finally, our grant partners have seen cash and foodbank donations decreasing which then limits what they can offer their clients.

As a specialist women’s funder with a mission to end gendered poverty, we are acutely aware of the multiple crises currently affecting low-income women. Our new Strategic Plan for 2022-2024 outlines how we will continue to tackle both the immediate symptoms and root causes of gendered poverty within our own financial capacity. However, a nationally co-ordinated response with full government support is needed.

Thank you to the following organisations for your contributions to this report: A Way Out, Inspire at St Peter’s, Staffordshire Women’s Aid, The Halo Project, 4Wings, Zinthiya Trust, Venus Charity, SAMEE, Lancashire Women, Together Women


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