Comment: When women pay for austerity, we all suffer

By Marina Strinkovsky

Globally, the face of poverty is the face of a woman, and it's usually a Black or Asian woman. This has probably been the case throughout history, but the 2008 economic crisis and the implementation of austerity policies that followed it has sent this process into overdrive. According to research conducted by the Commons Library, more than 70% of the cuts implemented in the current Parliament have come at the expense of women.

Feminists usually write about the unequal distribution of the impacts of austerity primarily from a justice point of view: disproportionately targeting a particular group in society for austerity measures is unjust, and in addition impedes the flourishing of women's lives. The Fawcett Society based its bid for judicial review on this premise back in 2010: that the government had a legal duty to investigate whether its policies will impact on certain populations disproportionately. As it happens the judicial review was rejected and the cuts to public services went ahead. The reality of those "cuts" translated into many thousands of women in the public sector losing their jobs, millions losing benefits, and millions more losing access to services, from Sure Start to Meals to Wheels, that supported their family obligations so they were able to also (on top of everything else) work and help provide for their families in a time of rising cost of living.

Conversely, left-leaning economists usually write about the long term impacts of austerity from the point of view of damage to productivity and growth. They talk about the skills taken out of the economy, the losses in long term investment that mean fewer jobs down the road, cuts to education which will have a knock on effect on the quality and competitiveness of the UK labour market decades down the line.

Both of these analyses of the terrible mistake that is austerity are useful and correct, but what one doesn't often see is an understanding of the fact that they are both happening at the same time.

The people losing their jobs or being pushed out of employment because of the rise in childcare and elder care costs are mostly women. And austerity and the rolling back of the welfare state, will create some potentially unexpected effects when targeted at the people who collectively still cook most of the nation’s food, wipe most of its noses, iron most of its school uniforms and do most of the school runs.

These jobs must be done. People, especially vulnerable people like children, will simply die if someone doesn't feed them. It's a kind of rock-bottom reality that can't be circumvented regardless of one's political ideology. What the welfare state model does is take these inevitable tasks of physical care and spreads responsibility for them across society. Where once women did the caring work for free inside the home, between 1945 and 2010 we mostly supported the idea that professionals could get a wage for doing these things outside the home, freeing up talent and labour power to drive the economy forward. It also freed up women from unjust exploitation of their free labour, but I'm not sure how many people had that aspect of it at the top of their mind.

What happens when these services are either completely dismantled or privatised and put on a profit-making footing is that the inescapable work of physical care falls back onto women. Many of these women – nursery teachers, care workers, nurses – were previously paid for doing some of that work, and are now having to leave paid employment. Their jobs are filled by sparse and expensive provision from contracting firms employing precarious workers on zero hour contracts, reducing the quality and availability of the service which increases the costs. Hospitals, nursing homes, disabled people's homes and schools can be both fit for purpose and turn a profit if they are exclusive and very expensive.

As these services do, increasingly, become expensive beyond the reach of many families (especially as wages stagnate), women who had previously paid other women to take over the bodily care of their families, directly in nursery fees or indirectly in taxes, are also impacted. There is an important and largely ignored interplay between the women who can no longer afford to be nannies or cleaners and the women who can no longer afford nannies. That is the squeezed middle, if you like, but it's a squeezed middle that is largely feminine and is being squeezed around tasks that are gendered, low status and indispensable to life.

There is a vicious circle being created whereby the first wave of austerity, having impacted mostly on lower paid and poor women, will very soon begin to impact on better off professional women who will not be able to afford child and elder care and will, through the largely still very gendered distribution of this work on society, be pushed out of the labour force themselves in order to backfill the previously paid labour with free labour. The resulting drop in income for many middle income families will push even more poor people – again, many if not most women – out of the work force, as demand stagnates and falls due to the two-earner family model being undermined, and so the wheel will turn again and the impact to both women's lives and economic growth will continue reinforcing itself.

Such a forced restructuring of the labour market by pushing one half of it back into unpaid care work will have a profound effect on the economy. Wages for men will not magically go back up to what they were in the heyday of the unions, allowing for one-wage households to live acceptable lives free of want. We can expect more extreme poverty, more food bank use, more disaffection and more alienation.  Whoever is in power after May will have some tough choices to make about the budget. But the welfare state is not the only thing the Treasury spends money on, and consequently there is no reason for it to absorb the full brunt of austerity, as has largely been the case so far. Targeting women for austerity isn't just cruel or unjust, it has kick-started a process of social and economic decline that will be almost impossible to reverse.

Marina Strinkovsky is a feminist writer and campaigner who blogs at It's Not a Zero Sum Game.

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