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What Austerity Means for Women

Author: Brooke Bates

Austerity measures have been in place in the UK since the economic crisis of 2008. It has been widely recognised that these measures, consisting of tax increases, benefit cuts, public expenditure cuts and a shift in responsibility from the public sector to the third sector, have caused disproportionate harm to society’s poorest and most vulnerable.

This has now been reinforced by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) whose report was published in 2016. Based on extensive research and evaluations of the UK’s social and economic policies, the report concluded that the UK’s welfare reforms and austerity policies have been particularly harmful to marginalised groups and have been unnecessarily drastic and prolonged.

In response to this report, I have examined some of the harm caused by austerity, specifically to women. 

In summary I found:

  • Austerity is worsening living conditions for many in society, and is harming the disadvantaged most.
  • Organisations providing services for women are witnessing increased demand as women’s lives come under increased pressure.
  • Disadvantaged women, such as those living with disabilities, are threatened by indignity and exclusion from ordinary life.
  • Social policy needs to be sensitive to the importance of difference, diversity and in particular needs to be less gender-neutral.

Austerity

Austerity has been the dominant approach of Western economies to the global economic crash of 2007/08. To salvage their broken economies, governments have reduced expenditure and have in some cases increased taxes in order to reduce deficit and debt, and prevent long-term economic downturn and instability. Since the widespread implementation of spending cuts, public sector redundancies and closure of services, there has been little improvement in real terms in multiple European countries. There has been a decline in living standards for many individuals, predominantly those who are worst off in society. Such people include those on low-incomes, people living with disabilities, ethnic minorities, women and children. These individuals and groups, already disadvantaged, have experienced substantial difficulty in light of shrinking public sectors, which provide essential services people need in order to live a dignified life. 

In June 2016, a United Nations report was published on the realisation of economic, cultural and social rights in the UK, considering the action of recent governments to the economic crisis. Following evaluation of the country’s social and economic policy, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights revealed flaws in recent policies regarding an array of social issues, including: poverty, unemployment, asylum seekers, gender equality, violence towards women and homelessness. The following excerpt from the report highlights the severity of the UK’s social security reforms, austerity measures and their impacts:

“The Committee is deeply concerned about the various changes in the entitlements to, and cuts in, social benefits introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, such as the reduction of the household benefit cap, the removal of the spare-room subsidy (bedroom tax), the four-year freeze on certain benefits and the reduction in child tax credits. The Committee is particularly concerned about the adverse impact of these changes and cuts on the enjoyment of the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, including women, children, persons with disabilities, low-income families and families with two or more children.” (UNCESCR 2016:7)

It has already been noted that austerity has had a harmful impact on women. For instance the Women’s Budget Group for instance calculated that female headed households will suffer the greatest decrease in living standards following recent changes to benefits, services and taxes (WBG 2016). However, statements such as these rarely carry equal weight with those of the UN – one of the most powerful and influential global institutions. By identifying recent policy reforms as damaging to the economic, social and cultural rights of individuals, the UN report reminds us that despite being one of the world’s leading economies (World Bank 2016), the UK is not exempt from human rights abuses, and a more responsive attitude to such violations is needed. 

In response to these conclusions, we should explore the actual impact of austerity measures on the individuals and groups identified in the report. We will begin with women, whose lives have altered in the face of welfare reform and public sector cuts, alongside persistent gender inequality. In the UK labour market, women still go under-represented in decision-making roles in employment (UNCESCR 2016), and are even less represented if they are minority or disadvantaged women. Despite advances in gender equality in the past few decades, nationally and globally, women remain the subjects of social exclusion, discrimination and marginalisation. For those deemed additionally disadvantaged, the marginalisation that they are likely to face is even greater, hence the importance of understanding potentially harmful consequences of public policy for these women.

The UN report conclusions inspired me to examine the way austerity has impacted real individuals and groups, particularly women. To do this, I consider austerity’s impact at an institutional and an individual level, using experiences of a service provider for women and then by considering the experiences of a disabled woman. A focus is placed on disadvantaged women because they experience multidimensional disadvantage, and are most likely to be affected by austerity. 

Services for Women

Public services have long been vital for women’s wellbeing, from state-funded childcare to domestic violence aid. In periods of austerity, public services come under threat due to stricter budget requirements, meaning reductions in what services may offer, as well as some services ceasing altogether. The services women use are diverse and cannot all be listed here, but an overview of how one particular service provider continues to function in times of austerity can be given. 

WomenCentre has been serving women and families of Calderdale and Kirklees in West Yorkshire since its establishment in the 1970s. At its two centres the organisation provides comprehensive and holistic support for women in a variety of circumstances, mainly disadvantaged women. This includes relevant help for mental health issues, housing, financial resilience, domestic violence and other supports. Institutions offering services like these are vital because vulnerable members of society are in need of protection. However the state seems increasingly unwilling to provide with funding or services (Bach 2016). Despite efforts by local authorities to mitigate the effects on society’s poorest, even small cuts to service provision are likely to be felt by poorer families, who are more reliant on public services (JRF 2015), hence there is an increased need for third sector organisations to continue provision.

WomenCentre has historically received much of its funding from the public sector and the local authority (Duffy & Hyde, 2011). However, in recent years this funding has been reduced as local councils have had their budgets cut by central government – between 2010 and 2013, Calderdale Council had faced budget reductions of over £40 million (Calderdale Council 2013), and reductions have continued since then, in line with the Government’s devotion to austerity. This has had a direct impact on services such as WomenCentre, which require support from public funds, as there is less funding available, in the context of greater need (Rubery 2015). 

Organisations including WomenCentre have had to adapt to women’s changing needs since the adoption of austerity. The women-centred approach adopted becomes even more crucial in austerity contexts because the public sector seems less concerned about reforming its approach to gender. Austerity measures are often framed within recent governments’ ‘all in this together’ narrative (Cohen 2015), failing to acknowledge that such measures have had a disproportionate impact on women, especially those who are more vulnerable.
This is not confined to the UK, as European policies regarding gender equality also decreased in priority after the economic crisis (Rubery 2015). Joining many charities and advocates for marginalised groups, WomenCentre recognises that welfare reforms such as benefit caps have a greater impact on more vulnerable members of society, including those who have little financial security as a result of complex problems such as poor mental health, domestic abuse and poverty. A number of the women who visit WomenCentre find it increasingly difficult to maintain a secure living standard, following restrictions to welfare services and benefits, and they often receive inadequate support from public bodies due to insufficient funding. 

Furthermore, in times of decreasing economic stability, women with low incomes and high debt require support through counselling and welfare advice services. At WomenCentre, the resources for welfare advice are limited and it is currently struggling to match high demand. There is also substantial demand for support with housing and legal advice, in the context of reduced Legal Aid, which was essential for those on low incomes. This issue is also highlighted by the UN, who criticise the governmental reforms to Legal Aid as a threat to a disadvantaged individual’s access to the legal system, in areas such as employment and housing (UNCESCR 2016). Reducing expenditure on services disadvantages the women use them and puts them and their families at further risk of precarious lifestyles and poorer living standards.

Despite facing funding challenges, Calderdale and Kirklees WomenCentre has continued to operate successfully throughout the austerity period. Through partnerships with local institutions, voluntary organisations and third sector bodies, service provision has continued to be comprehensive and beneficial for the women it serves. However, the future for service providers is still uncertain due to increading need and falling government support, especially in the most deprived communities, which have seen higher spending cuts than in the wealthiest, despite their greater need for public services (JRF 2015).

An Individual Experience of Austerity

To fully understand the reality behind the UN’s criticisms it is important to understand the lives of those affected by austerity. All women are unique, extracts from one woman’s experiences does not reveal the extent or complexity of the implications of austerity for all. However it is a crucial to understand the direct impact of public policy on a woman’s wellbeing and their ability to live a dignified life. Talking to one woman considered disadvantaged, helped me understand more fully the human impact of austerity.

Nadia is a young woman living with multiple disabilities. As a person in need of specialist equipment and specific support, such as an electric wheelchair and a personal assistant, she has a great deal of experience with public funding and services, social services in particular. Living in a context of declining support for people with disabilities (Just Fair 2014) and in a society in which disabled women are more likely to face poverty and social exclusion (Monedero et al 2014), Nadia faces a constant battle to lead to dignified life. 

Nadia’s fight to retain funding is a prime example of the failings in recent welfare reforms highlighted by the UN. In 2012 she campaigned for the right to continue receiving essential funding which was due to be cut because of austerity measures. It was proposed to reduce vital support so drastically that Nadia would have struggles to undertake basic tasks. The local authority justified its decision on the basis of equality of service, but didn’t take into account the complexity of Nadia’s needs. These kind of cuts to social care are a national phenomenon, with social care spending decreasing in the most deprived communities by as much as 14% (JRF 2015). There is also an inadequate level of funding for mental health services (UNCESCR 2016), which is also discriminatory, as women are more likely than men to experience common mental disorders and therefore require mental health services (McManus et al 2009).

Along with reductions in social care, reform to the Disability Living Allowance has resulted in further restricted benefits for some people living with disabilities. In light of these changes, Nadia has also been told by service providers that it will not be possible for her to live independently. As a young woman with independence and aspirations, this not only seems unfair but fundamentally in contrast to the notion of individual responsibility – a popular rhetoric in recent politics – as opposed to high reliance on state-funded support. This has also been occurring throughout the UK, as noted by the Just Fair report concerning dignified lives for disabled people: “…pressure on local authority budgets has led to disabled people losing support or having their support reduced… resulting in a clear threat to independent living” (Just Fair 2014:6). There are further impacts of preventing disabled individuals from being able to live independently. When there is insufficient funding for disability payments and specialised support, family members of those with disabilities often take on unpaid carer roles, making it even more difficult for low income families to function in already difficult contexts of decreased benefit payments and an insufficient minimum wage (UNCESCR 2016). 

Austerity has worsened public services’ ability to support individuals with complex needs, and this has consequential effects on their families and their communities. While local services continue to try provide support for disadvantaged individuals, they do so with 27% less spending power than in 2010/11 (JRF 2015), making it extremely difficult to adequately support disadvantaged groups such as women and people with disabilities. Specific services for women with disabilities are limited, an example being the absence of a national strategy for violence against disabled women (UNCESCR 2016). The apparent lack of empathy within a national system means that people like Nadia, and individuals in other disadvantaged circumstances, are prevented from fully expressing their individuality and freedom. 

Conclusion

The impacts of austerity since 2009 have been widespread and damaging for marginalised groups in the UK, including disadvantaged women. This is acknowledged extensively in some academic circles and by a number of charities and non-governmental organisations. But there is no wider public understanding of the harm caused. We must stress the real consequences of austerity, for the individuals and groups facing social exclusion and disadvantage. By highlighting the flaws in UK Government policy under austerity, we can help to challenge the disproportionate impact they have had on the most vulnerable members of society. By recognising that failure to support disadvantaged women through welfare payments, public services and appropriate social policy ultimately undermines their rights and ability to fully participate in society, we can call for change. A broader and more inclusive support network for people experiencing multidimensional disadvantage is required, whether this be through increased investment in public services or by a more comprehensive partnership between government, the third sector and communities. 

By providing a brief insight into austerity’s impacts on service provision and individuals’ experiences, I have tried to establish links between seemingly distant social or economic policies, and people’s real lives. As suggested by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an individual’s entitlement to a dignified and adequate standard of living should be of primary consideration for current and subsequent UK governments. It seems that even after repeated criticism, austerity still prevails, but condemnation from the UN may signify the start of much needed pressure to cause UK social policy to change.

References

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The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

What Austerity Means for Women © Brooke Bates 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.