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The female face of poverty in the UK

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the Women's Budget Group, report, The female face of poverty, women, poverty in the UK, debt, housing, benefits, Why are women more likely to be poorer than men?

Poverty is a gendered experience.

Women face specific challenges in achieving financial security for themselves and their families, including low paid work, unaffordable childcare, high housing costs and financial abuse.

The position of women in the labour market, women’s entitlement to benefits, and women’s roles and expectations within the family all play a role in determining a woman’s economic situation and the risk of her living in poverty.

The consequences of poverty include debt, housing issues, mental and physical health problems and a reduced ability to leave violent relationships.

And young women, mothers and female pensioners, as well as disabled and BME women all face specific risks and impacts of poverty.

The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) has produced a report about the causes of poverty among women and the consequences that poverty has on women’s lives.

Research for the report, ‘The Female Face of Poverty: Examining the causes and consequences of economic deprivation for women’, was carried out on behalf of the Coventry Women’s Partnership, a collaboration between the Women’s Budget Group and five women’s organisations in Coventry.

Women in the UK are slightly more likely to live in poverty than men when this is measured on the usual household basis: 21 per cent of adult women, compared to 19 per cent of adult men in 2016-17.

And female-headed households are poorer than comparable male-headed households.

For example, almost half (48 per cent) of single-parent households are living in poverty, compared to a quarter (24 per cent) of couple households. In the vast majority (86 per cent) of such households, the single parent is the mother.

In older age-groups, 23 per cent of single female pensioners are living in poverty compared to 18 per cent of single male pensioners.

Why are women more likely to be poorer than men?

The position of women in the labour market, the design of social security and women’s roles within the family all contribute to women’s vulnerability to poverty.

Employment can be an important safeguard against poverty. But this is not always the case for women.

Women’s employment rate (age 16-64) is at an all-time high in the UK, at 71 per cent, but women make up 60 per cent of the employees in the UK who are on low pay and 73 per cent of part-time workers.

The gender pay gap was 18.4 per cent in 2017 and has remained stable in the last 20 years.

And gaps in earnings continue to have a negative impact on women’s income before and after pension age.

Women’s looser attachment to the labour market is a consequence of gendered roles and expectations about who should shoulder caring responsibilities.

The design of the benefits system and the coutry’s lack of investment in transport, child care and social care also hinder women’s ability to combine care commitments with paid employment.

And women tend to rely more on means-tested benefits and men more on national insurance benefits which are not means tested. It can be harder for women to qualify for national insurance benefits because of periods out of paid work.

With the new Universal Credit system, cuts in work allowances, taper rates and the single monthly payment particularly hit women by reducing work incentives for some second earners and potentially increasing women’s vulnerability to poverty and financial abuse.

And cuts in benefits and public spending since 2010 have disproportionately affected women, and BME women in particular.

Benefit sanctions have been increasing in severity and conditionality is now applied to previously exempt groups e.g. more lone parents and disabled people. These sanctions are having a particular toll on vulnerable groups such as the victims of sexual and domestic violence and are pushing many people into destitution and ill health.

Restricted access to good quality housing is also a consequence of poverty.

Financial vulnerability limits the choice of living location and therefore the availability of family support, good jobs for low-income women and schools for children. It also limits women’s ability to flee violent and abusive relationships. Homelessness is particularly prevalent among single parents, with nearly half (47 per cent) of all homeless households being single-mother households.

And the burden of managing poverty has an impact on women’s health.

Women are often responsible for budgeting in low-income families with children and this is associated with poor health and low morale. Mothers will often shield their families from poverty by going without food, clothing or warmth themselves. Cuts to public services are leaving many people with unmet care needs, particularly older women, who tend to live longer and more often on their own, and so tend to have greater caring needs than older men.

In addition, women represented roughly two-thirds of those with severe debt problems in the UK in 2013.

Rising housing costs, cuts to housing benefit and caps to Local Housing Allowance – the money needed to meet private rents – are forcing many people into rent arrears and/or to turn to foodbanks to feed their families. People struggling financially may also be forced to accept credit at high interest rates or door-step loans to avoid rent arrears.

Poverty may exacerbate domestic abuse and violence by increasing or prolonging women’s exposure to it and by reducing their ability to flee.

The relationship between poverty and domestic violence is a complex one but we know they are correlated. For half of domestic violence victims living with their abuser, financial abuse prevents them from leaving the relationship.

The report’s authors have three recommendations:

1 – Access to an independent and adequate income for all:

Barriers to employment should be tackled by investment in childcare and adult social care, public transport and flexible and adaptable jobs;

Benefits should be designed to ensure that every individual within a household has access to a fair income; and that

In addition to collecting data at the household level, statistical authorities (including the ONS and DWP) should collect and publish income data at the individual level.

2 – Sharing care responsibilities and care costs more equally – within families and in society:

Parental and paternity leave should be lengthened and adequately paid to ensure that men can take it. Maternity leave should be paid at the same higher rate;

Flexible working should be offered as an immediate right to all employees so that women and men can choose their right balance of work and family responsibilities. Differential use of flexible working by men and women should be monitored, and policies put in place to encourage more equal take up; and that

Investment in child and adult social care should be consistent and adequate to ensure that these services are high quality, affordable and available to all who need it.

3 – Sustainable funding for specialist women’s organisations:

Specialist local women’s organisations should be adequately funded to ensure that all women have access to relevant support.

To read the full report, click here.

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