To kick off your week with a hefty dose of gender inequality, it’s now official: changes to the tax and benefits system mean, by the end of this decade, women will see their incomes hit twice as hard as men. Ahead of the Autumn Statement this Wednesday, figures by independent think tank Women’s Budget Group show that women will shoulder a staggering 85 per cent of the burden of the government’s cuts to social security and tax changes by 2020.
Even women lucky enough to be at the top of the income ladder will lose out more than men – men in the highest decile group will actually gain in cash terms – but, as ever, it’s the poorest women who will be hit hardest. Those with below-average incomes are due to be £1,678 a year worse off. And the news comes at the same time as new research which found that women in the UK continue to be underpaid compared with men and are more likely to rely on benefits to top up their income.
A key damaging measure is the rollout of the controversial universal credit – a new benefit that merges several benefits and tax credits into a single payment – that will make recipients worse off than if the tax credits system had been continued. (As a sexist bonus, the rules of universal credit mean if both you and your partner get benefits, the money will be paid as default into the account of the main earner in each household – typically, a man’s.) But a vast range of policies are working to make women poorer, from the raising of personal tax allowance and the failure of the National Living Wage to successive, ongoing freezes and cuts to social security.
It smacks of (ironic) sexism to tell women they’re doing women’s equality wrong – or, for that matter, to demand we somehow rank problems (“Why are you talking about the pay gap? Don’t you care about rape?”), as if we aren’t capable of thinking about more than one thing at once. But, I admit, it worries me how rarely we talk about this. That what government cuts are doing to the lives of women in this country is often presented as a subject foreign to mainstream feminism, or that policy decisions made by politicians and hitting real people, in all their complexities, can still somehow be seen as unrelated to gender.
We’re in one of the richest countries in the world and yet there are women in Britain who can’t even menstruate with dignity or feed themselves as well as their kids
The roles women are more likely to end up with – lone parents, lower-paying jobs and carers for disabled family – teamed with our already disadvantaged economic position mean the cuts to social security and public services are indisputably gendered. Put it another way: when the state pulls back, it's women who are largely left to pick up the pieces. As single mothers struggling to juggle work and childcare. As cleaners, nurses and agency care workers scrabbling to pay the bills with low wages and “top up” in-work benefits. As carers who have to quit their job and, with it, a decent income, to look after disabled loved ones.
Look at a measure like the benefit cap which, even before it was cut even lower this month, was already predominantly hurting lone parents (90 per cent are women) caring for children under five. Or, how Carer’s Allowance – a vital benefit paid to family carers looking after relatives for hours with no wage – is being taken away from many because it’s linked to another disability benefit, Personal Independence Payments, that’s increasingly hard to get.
As a journalist, I've spoken to mums – doing comfortably before the cuts started – now living off a single piece of toast a day or selling old toys to buy their children a winter coat. And disabled women told by social workers to take medication to alter their periods because social-care cuts mean the council won’t pay for a carer to help them get to the toilet. It’s heartbreaking and it’s horrifying. We’re in one of the richest countries in the world and yet there are women in Britain who can’t even menstruate with dignity or feed themselves as well as their kids. It’s not as if this is a handful of cases (though that would make it little better). Millions are affected by the benefits and tax changes being ushered in this decade and it’s touching every area of our lives – rent, income, family, health.
But women don’t tend to give up politely. Since the cuts began in 2010, female-led campaign groups have been fighting them, from Focus E15, a group of London mums fighting for decent housing, to Sisters Uncut, who take direct action against cuts to domestic-violence services.
That fight is needed more than ever. We’ve had six years of women taking the brunt of government choices and, as Women’s Budget Group shows, for at least another four years this is set to continue. It’s time, I think, to yell it from the rooftops. Austerity is a feminist issue.