Our social security system is not working. A succession of cuts and changes over the last eight years have left a fifth of the population (more than 14 million people) living in poverty. More than 4.5 million of these are children. One and a half million people are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.
As a Women’s Budget Group report argued last year, poverty has a female face. Women are more likely than men to be poor. Around a half of lone parents – 90 per cent of whom are women – and their children are living in poverty. And women are also more likely to act as the ‘shock absorbers of poverty’ going without food, clothes or warmth in order to meet the needs of other family members when money is tight.
Women’s greater risk of poverty pre-dates austerity policies, but cuts to social security, which will total £37bn a year by 2020, have hit women harder than men and BME and disabled women hardest of all.
The government’s response to this analysis is that women’s employment levels are at a record high. Unfortunately, paid work is not a secure route out of poverty, particularly for women. Sixty per cent of people in poverty are in a household where at least one adult is in paid work. Women also form the majority of low-waged workers and are more likely to be on zero-hours contracts, so would benefit from policies to tackle low pay and insecure work.
But in-work poverty is not just the result of low pay: fewer than half of those experiencing in-work poverty have a low paid worker in their household. Working hours are also important.
Women are more likely to work part-time (73 per cent of part time workers are women) as a result of gendered expectations about who should shoulder caring responsibilities. So policies to share care responsibilities and care costs more equally – within families and in society – have a critical role in tackling women’s poverty. This means policies to ensure high quality, affordable childcare for all who need it as well as policies to encourage men to take on greater share of care work. But social security will remain critical.
A social security system based around the needs of women living in poverty would start by rejecting the rhetoric of ‘scroungers and skivers’ that has categorised too much commentary about benefit claimants. Lessons can be learnt from the Social Security (Scotland) Act, which opens with the statement that “social security is an investment in the people of Scotland” and that “social security is itself a human right and essential to the realisation of other human rights”. This is a markedly different approach from the attitude of the UK government and recognises that we all have an interest in a just social security system. Such an approach would also mean the end to punitive sanctions, which are based on the assumption that benefit claimants need to be punished into work.
Second, social security levels should be sufficient to allow people to live with dignity and agency throughout their lives. This would mean an end to the benefit freeze, arbitrary benefit caps and the sanctions system which is pushing people into destitution.
Third, social security should provide additional support for people who face additional costs. This would mean an end to the two-child cap, which punishes children for the perceived failures of their parents (in having more than two children). It would also mean a disability benefit system that sought to actively support disabled people rather than finding reasons not to pay out.
Fourth, social security in the decade ahead must recognise the importance of individual as well as household incomes. At the moment social security focuses on household income with little recognition that income may not be shared equally within households and that who receives income can affect who gets to make financial decisions. The design of the system should not allow or encourage the long-term prospects of any individuals to be subordinated to the immediate needs of their current family. For example, the social security system should ensure that the long-term employment prospects of women are not put in conflict with the immediate income needs of their families. Nor should it tie social security rights to family form.
Fifth, a social security system dedicated to helping women in poverty should encourage more equal sharing of caring and employment roles within families. It should recognise the value of unpaid work, without reinforcing or exacerbating the current gendered division of labour. No policy should rely on just one individual having to be the main carer or the main earner in a family. Payments for individuals should be made to the individual who qualifies (eg for additional costs of disability). Payments for children should be made to those who actually meet those children’s day to day needs.
Finally the system should be efficient, designed to actively ensure that people receive the money they need and are entitled to and have a meaningful right of appeal against decisions, including the right to legal advice and advocacy.
Such policies would ensure that not only women living in poverty, but everyone, including children, could have their needs met.