Sat 20 Jun, 2015

Lollipops & Birdsong?

A feminist critique of UK welfare policy since 2008

**don’t switch off because it’s got the word feminist in it**

Jen Broadhust

Some 27 years after Professor Marilyn Waring’s seminal work, ‘If Women Counted’, questioned what is and what is not considered economically productive in human life, the UK and other economies continue to implement traditional macro-economic values in the pursuit of ‘growth’ and increased GDP. The retraction of the UK welfare state is currently being celebrated by the Conservative government and right wing media for its role in reportedly reducing the UK fiscal deficit. However, the impact on many individuals is rising income inequality, rising reliance on food banks, and a precarious relationship with housing which all disproportionately impact negatively on women and children.

Why has the UK government failed to listen to the message from economists such as Marilyn Waring and instead follows what are termed ‘gender-blind’ traditional macro-economic teachings to the detriment of programmes that seek to redress some of society’s gender imbalances? Why does UK economic policy fail to account for the ‘unproductive’ in society, and provide a welfare system that promotes wellbeing? Why are instruments used to measure our economy fundamentally failing the most vulnerable in society? For most of this information is not new, it formed the crux of much of the independence campaign last year. I am writing this article while also encouraging many of my Ayrshire Green party and East Ayrshire Women for Indy co-members and to attend the anti-austerity rally in Glasgow this coming weekend and I’m also wondering how we (as women, as homemakers, as economists, as activists) change the predominant economic narrative of policy makers?.

In 2008 the global economy was shaken with a deep and enduring economic downturn which escalated into one of the longest running recessions of the modern age. Media reports throughout 2008 and 2009 reported on the effects of the recession as being a ‘mancession’. This new term was derived from the information that men were five times more likely at that stage to have been negatively affected by the scale back in employment by firms attempting to outrun the recession. However as subsequent time, studies and economists such as the late Ailsa McKay, have demonstrated this was a temporary outcome of the recession, a normality, whereby those employed within industries that are highly responsive to economic cycles are affected faster than those in marginally more secluded industries and in actual fact as we are all too aware, women have gone on to bear the brunt of the worst outcomes of not only the recession but also as a result of the fierce adherence to austerity economics exhibited by many European governments, not least including the Conservative-Liberal coalition government in the UK since 2010, and now the fully unleashed version in the Tory administration. The response of the then Labour government following the crash across 2008-2009 was a combination of measures that included private sector asset purchase or ‘quantitative easing’ to the amount of around £200 billion by the Bank of England, a buyout of those banks most affected in the UK, by the toxic debt that was blamed for the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Northern Rock and the subsequent global crash, as well as a cutting of interest rates was all aimed at increasing the amount of money able to circulate in the economy meeting inflation targets and preventing further spiral of the UK economy. These measures implemented by the Labour government following the global financial crisis, suggest that containment and prevention of further economic disaster were the aims of the actions and that gender impacts of the macro-economic decisions made appear not to have been considered at the time.

From the outset, the 2010 Conservative-Liberal coalition government was criticised by groups such as the Fawcett Society, the TUC and The Women’s Budget Group in terms of how its fiscal policies have impacted on women in particular. The UK Government implemented an emergency budget in June 2010, soon after taking office that sought to introduce substantial reductions in welfare and public spending, in an ideologically driven economic programme that was seen by many policy makers and providers as being too harsh and too rapid. Economists, and women’s groups condemned the measures put in place as being deeply harmful to women in particular, with the Fawcett Society launching a legal bid challenging the budget, which came about as a result of a gender audit carried out by them, that discovered that 72% of the cuts to be implemented would be borne by women’s income, compared to 28% of men’s. The reason for this lack of equality in budgetary effects across the genders is explained by the fact that women tend to be employed in the public services that were scaled back, they also are more likely to be in receipt of the welfare spending as lone parents and low earners, and that changes to the tax system such as tax free allowances tend to benefit men more than women. Within the UK, the Trussell Trust, which runs many of the country’s food banks, has reported figures that show over 1 million new referrals to food banks over the last year. Of this number of people desperate for support and food, many are mothers and people with families that receive a three day emergency food package.

Figure 1- Source Trussell Trust Figure 1: Source Trussell Trust

As well as reporting on who receives their emergency food supplies, the Trussell Trust also provides statistics on why people find themselves reliant on this growing charity. An overwhelming number (43.5%) of those accessing food banks are as a result of delays or change to their benefits.

Figure 2: Source Trussell Trust Figure 2: Source Trussell Trust

This indicates that the economic forecasting that had been carried out by feminist economists has unfortunately proven to be true. Women are bearing the burden of poverty and experiencing poorer outcomes as a result of the austerity measures the coalition government was warned against back in 2010 by the Fawcett Society and others.

The 2010 UK Equality Act set out a legal onus on the UK government to consider what it termed ‘due regard’ to gender equality when making decisions relating to public spending. It is clear that the government failed to do so, with the challenge mounted by the Fawcett society as well as the admission of the government on its own failure to carry out gender impact assessments in relation to a number of spending plans and policies from early in its tenure, as well as an investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)-the statutory body set up to enforce equality legislation, and as well as the abolition of the Women’s National Commission in late 2010 are all indicative of this failure.

The coalition government continued to retract the welfare state, with its subsequent budgets and the setting into law of the UK Welfare Reform Bill 2012. In addition to the failures demonstrated a moment ago, The UK government’s own impact assessment into the ‘Conditionality, Sanctions and Hardship of welfare reform’ states that “while the policy is ‘gender neutral’, 73% of women who are claimants will be affected by the changes, as opposed to only 27% of men”. These are the categories into which those individuals most likely to need emergency support from agencies such as the Trussell Trust fall under.

Therefore the UK government was well aware in 2011 of the negative effect that their Welfare Reform bill was to have on women, it was aware from both external and internal assessment but continued on its path of reform and retraction of welfare provision to some of the UK’s most vulnerable people.

Women - within the context of the UK government’s welfare policies - have been shown to be collateral damage. Those women who act as primary caregivers to previous and future generations and provide the bulk of domestic duties have been viewed as economically unproductive by the coalition government. Because they are not taxpayers in the traditional sense, or represented adequately in parliament their voice has been ignored, and the impact on them deemed necessary for the perceived stability of the UK economy.

What to do?

As supporters of feminism and equality we not only have a duty to demonstrate the structural inequalities that impact in negative ways upon women, we bear a responsibility to attempt to change these inequalities. So, why then have feminist economists been unsuccessful in persuading the policy writers in government of the importance of gendered approaches to designing welfare policy? Is the language we speak too fluffy, is it all lollipops and birdsong to the hard headed economists and policy designers in government? Why is a welfare policy that has been judged to adversely affect 73% of women in the government’s own impact assessment deemed sufficient to proceed?

Mita Marra, an Italian economist, points out that scholarly work has failed to draw comprehensive comparative analyses across different political and institutional contexts as well as failed to influence the design of policy that could meaningfully alter traditional gender roles, power relations and stereotypes.

She argues that instead of looking for blame or the underlying motivations for discrimination, we should be looking at positive examples of shared gender roles. Where we each as human beings cooperate, sharing responsibility and goals we succeed. She argues that this should be the evaluation tool used to unpack mechanisms of cooperation. And calls for deeper analysis into the ‘reactions of beneficiaries to the opportunities offered by public policies, how these relate to expectations, aspirations and perceptions of efficiency and fairness via emotional, cognitive and economic mechanisms.’ This makes sense, as women, we live work and create in the ordinary world alongside men. We negotiate, and are able to control many aspects of our lives as equals, therefore it does not take too large a leap of imagination to see that what is required is greater representation of women in the realms of decision and policy making.

If we take the Scandinavian countries as an example of Marra’s use of complexity theory, we see that the implementation of policies such as equal pay, parental leave and access to childcare lead to increased sharing of traditionally gendered roles and responsibilities, where both individuals have parity of terms and conditions there is a deeper negotiation over who does what, but where one (usually the woman) is in a more precarious positon the decision over who does more of the domestic duties is easier in terms of the household’s economics. In households where traditional gender and domestic labour roles are shared due to greater equality in earning capacity, the situation becomes the norm, with as Marra puts it, gender cooperation reinforces gender egalitarian preferences and action, which diffuse gender-cooperative world views. Put simply, where citizens and political leaders cooperate on a gender equal footing, gender equality prevails and breeds further gender equality that becomes entrenched in the psyche of that society.

This is all well and good, and Marra is right to call for greater and wider interpretations of what is being assessed in terms of gender equality and normative roles, but which comes first in this particular chicken and egg scenario- the equality or the transformation? We know that businesses and societies that adopt gender-equality policies generally fare better than those who do not. We know that the educational and health outcomes for those societies that have adopted public policy that supports gender equality are higher than those societies that have not, the evidence is there. So why has the UK failed to implement real changes in public policy and really take account of the differences in which men and women are affected by economic policy? Particularly, when faced with overwhelming evidence that the policies that have been implemented continue to have a negative impact on women, and therefore by extension the future generations being raised by those women.

The answer may lie in how we evaluate and challenge the power structures that influence political decision making. In addition to pursuing social democratic policies, those administrations that have greater numbers of women in parliament and also within ministerial or cabinet positions fare better in terms of gender equal outcomes for their citizens. It will come as no surprise to you that parliaments in the Scandinavian region have an average of 41.5% of women representatives compared to only 23.6% for the rest of Europe.

The UK ranks 57th in the world, and sits below the European average at 22.8% (correct at time of writing[1]), that is only 148 of the available 650 of its elected representatives being women. When it comes to ministerial positions, those positions that equate to actual policy making and real influence on government actions, the UK ranks 36th equal with south Sudan at 22.7% or 5 out of 22 positions. Again our Nordic neighbours manage to get themselves into the top ranks with an average of 51.5% of ministerial positions being held by women. Finland unsurprisingly sits top at 62.5% with 10 of its 16 positions going to women. Interestingly, according to UN figures only 17 finance or budgetary portfolios are held by women, with 74 women’s Affairs or gender equality held by us. Clearly gender parity is still seen as a woman only issue. Within the UK only 5 women sit at the table, almost 23%. If we take the analogy that the late Ailsa McKay used to remind us of “if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu” that means that representatively speaking, 77% of women in the UK are effectively on the menu, doesn’t it? The fact that by the UK government’s own admission 72% of women in receipt of welfare or using public services would be adversely affected by their changes to welfare provision in conjunction with reduced capacity for women to be given a direct voice to government due to the dismantling of the Women’s National Commission in 2010. The result of these impacts, with the fact that women are by and large the main caregivers, is that today in the UK, 1 in 4 children are living in poverty. According to Child Poverty Action Group, this translates in economic terms as a £17billion deficit in the exchequer. Therefore the enduring inability or incapacity of men in suits in the upper echelons of political power houses to hear and see women seated at the table, means that not only are the interests of women, children and the wider society being side-lined, the economic impact of the decisions made is costing the country billions in lost revenue.

We must begin to show ordinary women and men that the UK society and economy is best served by equal representation at parliament. Some political parties in regions of the UK such as the Scottish Greens and the Scottish National Party have recently begun to ensure gender parity in their selection lists which is a positive step for gender equality. There are calls for legal requirements on quotas with the 50:50 campaign in Scotland for example. But as Talat Yaqoob argues between the 2010 and 2015 General Elections the same number of women (28%) are standing for election for government, despite a surge in political literacy in Scotland little has changed. Women appear to be too busy coping with the inequalities of the UK government’s economic measures to be concerned with changing the power structures that control these measures.

A grassroots campaign, supported by economists, led by women and allied men is required in order to effectively and meaningfully alter the trajectory for many of the UK’s poor.

We must reach out from our academic and political silo’s, demonstrate to society how joining up the political and economic dots will benefit the whole of society and reduce poverty and inequality as a result.

Finding ways in which ordinary women can challenge the political setup and setting out the economic evidence for those unconvinced that quota’s and gender equality in political representation are required, must be a priority for us, or we are destined for it to take another 80 years for gender equality to reach our political spheres and decision making processes. Making the case for gender equality at all levels of society, not only academic is key to supporting the UK economy to work for everyone. This delay in parity will result in greater inequality, poverty and hardship for too many of the most vulnerable in the UK. [2]


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[1] The 2015 UK General Election saw an increase of female MP’s to 191/650 & 7/22 Cabinet positions

[2] Jen Broadhurst is a PhD student at GCU, The Ayrshire Branch of The Scottish Green Parties Secretary, as well as a member of the ‘Scottish Greens’ and ‘Women for Independence|Independence for Women’ for more see her blog:

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