Recent research highlights how badly cuts are affecting women, particularly those with children or other caring responsibilities.*
Rising unemployment and underemployment, increasing unaffordability of childcare, and benefit cuts on top of the rising cost of living add up to a very bleak picture for all working-class people. But the cuts will mean huge regression in female independence and equality.
Female unemployment is at its highest for 25 years, is rising and is growing disproportionately faster than male unemployment. 1.12 million women are “available for work” but are jobless. The background to this is the recent loss of 270,000 public sector jobs. 710,000 jobs are due to be cut by 2017. Eventually half a million women will lose their public sector job cuts.
Where jobs are being created, most are low-skilled, low-paid and part-time jobs. As single or joint-parents women will not take up those jobs if their wages do not adequately cover childcare costs.
The cost of childcare in the UK is the second highest in Europe — 26.6% of average family incomes, or 40.9% of the average wage. The cost of childcare rose by 6% last year.
The choice of childcare has been reduced by closures of Sure Start centres and after school clubs.
Financial support for bringing up children has been undermined by cuts to maternity grants and the freezing of child benefits. The maximum childcare element of Working Tax Credit has been reduced from 80% to 70% of childcare costs.
Regular surveys by workingmums.net (although not high polls) show a third of working mothers giving up work as a result of cuts to tax credit.
Cuts in housing benefit disproportionately affect women (one million more women than men claim housing benefit).
Cuts are forcing women into looking for second jobs or working more than one, (maybe highly insecure) “mini jobs” (jobs with very short hours).
For women with children, finding work is only part of the battle. Staying in work is hard if suitable childcare cannot be found, it does not “fit” with the hours of a job (the government’s 15 hours per week free childcare falls short of what is needed for most jobs) and wages and in-work benefits do not cover costs.
Trying to manage all these pressures is especially tough for single parents.
All of this is happening when claimants are facing increasing pressure to find work (rule changes mean more single parents have to be “available for work”).
The detailed reports which keep track of women and cuts are good reports, but are usually tailored to polite lobbying for policy change. Some propose inadequate or even half-baked “solutions”.
The Women’s Budget Group wants to see the reversal of cuts (a good starting point). But they champion closing tax loop holes and a “Robin Hood tax” — levy on financial transactions.
That is well short of what is needed to completely reverse the new conditions of austerity, to ensure all have the right to a useful job with reasonable hours and a decent wage, and if necessary full flexibility for caring responsibilities, extended paid parental leave, and free childcare.
The Fawcett Society and others have called for equality impact assessments on government cuts and reforms. But more equal treatment might just mean an equitable distribution of pain between men and women. It does not mean backing down on cuts or expanding nursery places, or unravelling welfare reform.
This situation demands a massive, sustained and coherent campaign by the unions: fighting against all cuts but also pushing forward the issues that are vital to working-class women.
For now most unions are not pursuing any meaningful fight against the cuts; for instance, the campaign to preserve public sector pensions has dribbled away to next-to-nothing. Yet as the political storm clouds gather in Europe, the UK slips deeper into recession and the popularity of the coalition government slips, we can and should expect renewed struggles.
The TUC plans another demonstration on 20 October.
Our trade unions, student unions and anti-cuts groups could use that demonstration to bring together the people — all people, women and men — who are most badly affected by the cuts. We need to be organising for that to happen.
* Women’s Budget Group, Pre-Budget Briefing, March 2012
Fawcett Society, The Impact of Austerity on Women, March 2012
Gingerbread, It’s Off to Work We Go?, May 2012
Daycare Trust, Childcare costs survey 2012