Dr Sara Reis from the Women's Budget Group highlights some of the main findings and insights from the recent publication of the Female Face of Poverty Report.
Why does poverty have a woman’s face? We know that women are more likely to live in poverty than men (21% of women are poor compared to 19% of men). And we know this difference is starker when we look at female headed households. 23% of single women pensioners live in poverty compared to 18% of single men pensioners and 13% pensioners in couples. When it comes to single parents, the statistics are very grim: nearly half (48%) of single parents and their children are living in poverty right now.
But why is this the case? As our latest report, part of a project funded by the Smallwood Trust shows, at the heart of women’s poverty is the gender division of labour, and in particular responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work.
Throughout the world caring responsibilities and household management are still largely seen as women’s responsibility. In the UK women spend 60% more time than men on care duties. This means women have less time to engage in paid employment and so they will earn less wages. 73% of people employed part-time are women and part-time positions are commonly paid at a lower rate per hour than full-time ones and heavily concentrated in low-paying industries such as cleaning, cashiering and caring. It also means that employers see women as more of a risk than men to employ, since they assume that women are more likely to take periods of leave and less committed to work because of their other commitments.
Employment is therefore not a route out of poverty for many women.
Many women are shielded from poverty by their partner’s wages. But this can be problematic for two reasons: women may have less influence in family decisions and they may be at risk of financial destitution in the future if the relationship breaks down. In a situation of abuse, many victims find it harder to leave if they don’t have their own income, as it becomes an impossible choice between suffering the abuse or becoming homeless.
Women’s employment trajectories very often don’t follow the male full-time standard on which many benefits and pension schemes are built around. The overall shift to occupational and private pensions is leaving many women with very low incomes to get by in older age.
The state’s role in preventing and mitigating women’s poverty
The state has a crucial role to play in preventing poverty and mitigating its impact on women’s lives. Childcare costs, one of the current causes of poverty for women, can be reduced if there is an adequate public investment in provision and an expansion of free entitlement to cover more hours and all families who need it. This would result in a better educated and healthier population, while freeing up women’s time for paid employment. A similar investment in adult social care, as found by the Women’s Budget Group in earlier research, would have similar results.
The design of the benefits and tax system determines to a large extent women’s ability to have their own income. A social security system fit for purpose has to make sure that all members of a household have access to an autonomous and fair income. In many ways, Universal Credit is a step in the wrong direction. Its single monthly payment into a single bank account is of great concern for facilitating cases of financial abuse, its two-child limit is unfair for third and subsequent children in a family, and the single work allowance discourages second earners – mostly women – from progressing in or taking up paid employment in the first instance.
The Women’s Budget Group argues that a comprehensive and rigorous equality impact assessment on social security changes and on public service cuts should be conducted by the government, prior to designing new policies. This is to ensure that women are not further disadvantaged, that they can be economically autonomous and live in a dignified manner.
Dr Sara Reis, research and policy officer for the Women’s Budget Group