Women, welfare and social sustainability

awomansplace

This picture was shared (and I shared) from The Little Bookroom on Facebook last week (http://www.littlebookroom.com.au/).

Last Thursday was International Women’s Day, followed on Sunday by Mother’s Day – a good week for women, you might suppose. During the course of last week I had passed to me a ‘Welfare Reform Timeline Desk Aid’ (email if you would like a scan), which is being used in some local food banks to help staff and volunteers plan for when cuts will hit. This will give them some idea as to when to expect an increase in individuals and families needing emergency support to eat. It is a very salutary document.

One of the key areas of concern which I honed in on is the changes to welfare which, from Autumn 2013, will mean that support will be paid only to one member of a household. One person in the household will directly receive welfare support, and that member will be responsible for how this is used and allocated within one household’s budget. As the BBC highlighted last year:

‘There are concerns… that the payment of Universal Credit to one person in a household could, in some instances, upset the family dynamic: potentially putting that individual in a position of considerable power and influence’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19534570).

Sarah Veale argues that ‘although it is still unclear precisely how families’ incomes will change as the Universal Credit is introduced, one of the more worrying aspects for women is that the payment will be made to one person within the household (apart from Child Benefit). In a two parent family, the man is more likely to receive benefits related to work such as Jobseekers Allowance, whereas the mother is more likely to receive Child Tax Credits as well as Child Benefit. If the man becomes the “main applicant”, the mother may well lose out. Research by the Policy Studies Institute has shown that money going into a family via the mother is more likely to be spent on the children than money going into a family via the father’ (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/7231)

Women are not are inherently more trustworthy than men, but context dictates an emphasis on the role of women in these cuts. Whilst my PhD research highlighted imbalances in power relationships in the favour of men in families and in neighbourhoods, it important to say that I don’t think that men have a greater propensity to abuse power any more than women. The issue is how to best ensure that welfare goes to those for whom it is intended – and arbitrarily shifting power to one member of a household will typically shift power away from women.

My research interests revolve around social inequalities, community development and housing. I think that there is a huge risk in these welfare cuts that women will be once more ‘trapped’ by financial systems, that their agency over their own finances will be taken and placed into the hands of a third party (the nominated applicant). People who are in receipt of welfare to support themselves and their families are already in a vulnerable position, where they need help from a third party to get by. Creating (or reinforcing) power relations which may exist in relationships can amplify this vulnerability. Where vulnerable women rely on having control over their own finances, this support will be taken away. A woman’s control over how she feeds herself, pays the bills and feeds her children will be taken away. Women will become financially reliant on the whims of their partner, whom will receive the total household income into their own accounts and their own control. Sure, in happy, equal and stable relationships there may be no issue here – but these changes hold capacity to shift power relations within households and institutionalise vulnerabilities for unnamed householders who will become financially dependent on the named applicant.

To contextualise this, women who may be trapped in violent relationships will have this final lifeline for some control, some means of escape, taken away from them and placed in the hands of their partner. Women could well be forced into a position where they have to beg or negotiate money from their partner to get by, or to care for their children. Women and children will pay the price for these changes to welfare administration.

This is a huge, pernicious threat to women and men across Britain want to live in equal partnership. I have seen no arguments in favour of these planned arrangements – though I would be very interested to hear these if people have them. It is essential that partners in relationships are not prohibited by the welfare system from holding control and agency to determine their own lives. On the one hand, we celebrate International Women’s Day, we share images like the one at the top of this article with a wry smile and yet, on the other hand our Government is setting in motions plans to set back women’s rights for the most vulnerable in our society. The point that I am trying to make is that I am furious, that I am scared and that I don’t know what we can do to stop this.

These are my views on this subject (Jeni Doyle) and I am very interested to hear other people’s view and perspectives on this, whether they agree or challenge my interpretation of these proposed cuts. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch via email, via comments or directly on twitter @JDoyleCSD

A little more reading:
1. A really excellent blog on the gender differentiation in welfare cuts can be found at the New Left Project here: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/when_austerity_sounds_like_backlash_gender_and_the_economic_crisis
2. And another very good article in the New Statesman here: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/when_austerity_sounds_like_backlash_gender_and_the_economic_crisis
3. If you are interested in issues of equality, power and the economy, with a focus on women, please have a look at the Fawcett Society here: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

And with many thanks to the multiple people, men and women, who helped me to find useful information for this post.

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2 Responses to Women, welfare and social sustainability

  1. cjoflaherty says:

    A really thought provoking article. Making sure welfare reaches those who need it most is a vital point. Similarly, the responsibilities of parents and how ineffectual parenting contributes to social disharmony must be a key issue worthy of highlighting. Comic Relief will doubltess cover similar ground tomorrow night – in between the latest newscaster song and dance show and the annual reminder of Lenny Henry’s ‘talent’ – and drawing parallels between the delivery of welfare and charity is perhaps worth consideration?

  2. drjenidoyle says:

    I suppose that the key difference between welfare and charity is that one is prescriptive through legislation, and the other is voluntary. So we have a right to hold the state accountable for inequity and injustice in distribution of resources in a way which doesn’t apply for charity. One’s acceptance of a charity’s resource distribution is presumed through our subjective propensity to donate to different causes – if you don’t agree, you don’t donate. We don’t have an ‘opt out’ for contributions to the state; necessarily the state is surely required to adopt a reciprocal approach – that it certainly should not exclude individuals from access to support through administrative processes (as I would argue this will be).

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