Buried amid coverage of last week’s Budget was a telling statistic: women will be hit twice as hard as men by Osborne’s chosen measures. According to House of Commons research commissioned by Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper, direct taxes and social security cuts will take £9.6bn net a year from families – £7bn of which is from women.
The media largely had more important things to focus on. The Sun, for one, was busy superimposing George Osborne’s head onto a six-pack.
From the coalition to their first majority Budget, the Conservatives have orchestrated policies that have wildly, disproportionately hit women: from cuts to tax credits to caps on and cuts to benefits, and pay cuts in real terms. Scan most coverage – either given to feminist campaigns or economic analysis of the cuts – and we would hardly know it.
But to discuss austerity with “gender blindness” is to ignore what is actually happening. Mothers skipping meals to feed their kids. Women queuing at food banks for sanitary towels. Carers – 72 per cent of whom (receiving Carer’s Allowance) are women – struggling to look after disabled family in poverty.
We are witnessing an economic and cultural assault on women.
As the Fawcett Society put it to me – before we even include the latest round of measures – 85 per cent of all the cuts have been at the expense of women, according to calculations by the House of Commons Library.
“Whilst women are more dependent on public spending than men and would therefore be more sensitive to cuts regardless, the strategy chosen by the government has also hit services women are particularly reliant on,” they added.
Social care has already been cut by 23.4 per cent over the past five years, according to the Women’s Budget Group. Social housing by 33.8 per cent. Early years education and childcare has been cut by 19 per cent. There is a reason this slicing of local government services have been dubbed a “death by a thousand cuts”.
Women, similarly to disabled people – many of whom, as obvious as it is to state, will also be women – tend to be reliant on multiple public services. They are also primary caregivers and often the lowest earners.
It would not take advanced thinking to grasp that taking a hatchet to state support would disproportionately hurt women. Indeed, as recently as May, a group of 11 women’s rights charities, including Women’s Aid, the Fawcett Society, and Rape Crisis, were warning that very thing.
If you impose an ideological project to simultaneously cut public services and benefits, then it is women – particularly marginalised women, such as single mothers or those in poverty (again, not typically binary groups) – who will find their living conditions worsening.
Listen to the recent rhetoric around benefits and you would be forgiven for thinking this was intentional. The recession provided not only a long-term economic excuse to dismantle state support but, increasingly, a moral one. Look close enough and this is often framed in a gendered way. Women are not only now part of “dependency culture” but, as mothers of future “welfare dependents”, are reproducers of it. Less beautiful family, more irresponsible leaches. As Dawn Foster put it in a discussion on working class feminism: the middle class “have children”, whereas the working class “breed”.
The new Budget brought in two cuts that further this agenda: the benefit cap, which cut the amount in benefits families can receive further to £20,000 (£23,000 in Greater London); and the limiting of child tax credits to two children (for those born after April 2017). Both share a message for women who have the audacity to have multiple children while being working class.
It’s telling that, in an anti-benefit climate so hysterical the Labour party is currently considering abstaining over the Welfare Bill rather than voting against it, Osborne is barely trying to hide this. As he announced the latest cuts, the Chancellor knew he could be explicit: the social security system “should not support lifestyles and rents that are not available to the taxpayers who pay for that system”.
The punishment for the “lifestyle choice” of structural inequality – a gendered and class-based pay gap, high-cost childcare, on top of high rents – is watching your children be pushed into poverty.
It gives some insight into where we currently are that the Department for Work and Pensions will develop “protections” for women applying for tax credits who “have a third child as a result of rape”. It is unclear what evidence a rape victim will have to provide the government to receive her benefits.
Osborne is actually set to claim this week that women are key winners from his choices. Specifically, that they will make up two-thirds of those who will benefit from the new so-called national living wage, according to Treasury analysis. That shows quite some nerve considering these calculations don’t take into account the money he’ll remove from the same women through cutting tax credits.
In fact, a low-earning single parent – usually women – working 20 hours a week at £9.35 an hour to support one child will be £1,000 a year worse off by the end of this Parliament, the Resolution Foundation calculated last week.
These latest austerity measures highlight the class dimension of a long-standing wider feminist concern: “benefit claimant mothers” can be vilified while the same government makes it harder for women to stay in or find work.
As Giselle Cory, senior research and policy analyst at IPPR, pointed out on the Staggers, the latest Budget does a good job of exacerbating the gender inequality set out in the DWP’s flagship benefit system, Universal Credit: poor incentives for the lowest earner in a couple – namely, low-income women – to go out to work.
It’s being made no easier for single parents (again, usually women). Under Universal Credit, parents – including lone ones – will be required to return to work when their child turns three and “prepare for work” by training or having interviews when their youngest turns two.
It says something of the “no win” position in which the Conservatives are putting low-income mothers that, as they are being pushed into work, the government is excluding them from the latest extension of free childcare (only three and four year olds in “working families” – not jobseekers – will be eligible).
It would be easy to feel a sense of defeatism at this point. But women – from Focus E15, the young mothers who occupied an empty block of council houses in Newham, east London for the right to social housing, to carers protesting disability cuts – are at the centre of the fight back.
Just as economic analysis has routinely shut out female experiences, a cultural version of “woman problems” – from body image to representation – is often pushed to the forefront as our economic inequality is sidelined. But the latest Budget confirms what the past five years has been quietly screaming. Austerity is a feminist issue.