In recent years, focus has been on discovering if poverty is ‘gendered’, that is to say to what extent women may be more at threat of poverty than men. In this essay I shall be discussing how women are affected by poverty and what factors lead to women being poorer than men. Peter Townsend et al (1987) have argued that there has been a ‘feminisation of poverty’, this term may be understood in various ways, it may refer to the increased risk of poverty or the increased visibility of women’s poverty it may also refer to the reconstruction of poverty from a woman’s viewpoint.
It is difficult to compare the poverty of men and women because statistics are usually based on households and this suggests that household incomes are shared evenly between adult members. Glendinning and Millar (1987 maintain that men get a larger share in most cases and this may echo their higher earning ability and the fact that in many households men still make the decisions of how money is spent.
It has been shown that women are more likely to be poorer than men, although their poverty has often been masked behind studies that focused on ‘ male-headed households’ Ruspini (2000).
Townsend acknowledges four groups which make up the majority of the female poor, these consist of women who take care of children and other dependents they are unpaid and are unable to take up employment. There are also lone women with children who dip in and out of employment. Then there are elderly women like pensioners who live alone. There are also women with low earnings where the incomes of others in the household do not contribute towards the total household income to enable the women’s income to go over the poverty line. Women unquestionably tend to experience more poverty than men because their labour both unpaid and paid is undervalued, in addition women have always experienced work in a different way from men.
A private and public split has always existed where women were seen as belonging in the private sphere of hearth and home and the ideologically constructed family, whereas men were seen as belonging in the public sphere of the market and the state.
In terms of work, three main reasons for why women’s poverty continues have been identified, the first is because a third of all women of working age still remain outside the labour market almost twice the proportion for men, they do not have equal access to the core of the labour market and they are disproportionately represented within part-time and lower paid jobs and on average women are paid less than men. The New Labour government has aimed to maximize labour force involvement by supporting (the idea of work-life balance) and trying to make it easier for people to merge paid work and family life. In-work benefits and tax credits were introduced as incentives however the working families tax credit has been more beneficial to women earners than those whose main income comes through male partners since it is more likely to be paid through the pay packet. The development of a National Childcare Strategy was also introduced but it does not measure up to the levels of childcare provision to be found in most other European countries.
The second reason involves the responsibility women have for most of the tasks associated with social reproduction in the way of unpaid care work and domestic labour.
The third reason is the sharing of income and resources within families, in the majority of cases this does not benefit women. Individuals can be poor in households with adequate incomes. This finding has important implications for policy initiatives aimed at the relief of poverty (Pahl 1989; Kempson 1996).
Other forms of inequality have persisted within the public sphere, Gillian Pascall (1997) and others have argued that while women now make up a high proportion of the public sector workforce in healthcare, social work and education, they remain under represented in senior and management positions. This is characteristic of the ‘sticky floor’ where women are concentrated in specific occupations with low pay and status and what they do at work is often similar to what they do at home, although the introduction of the minimum wage in April 1999 has been beneficial to women who are dependent on low paid work but not to other wage groups. Though most health service workers are women, most of the surgeons are men and it is largely men who control health and social services including services that concern women, for instance reproductive healthcare, as well as support for informal carers and the education system. This is typical of the ‘glass ceiling’ where women are less likely to hold senior positions and when they do hold senior positions they have to work harder and for longer hours in jobs that are classed as men’s work. In the 1970’s 70 percent of managers were men and today 90 percent of judges are men.
Anti discrimination legislation has sought to outlaw all forms of sex discrimination but this has mostly brought about advances for individual women but has not benefited all women although it has improved the practices of most employers as well as raising public awareness.
While the education system no longer just prepares girls for domesticity, it is tending to equip them for sub- servient occupations especially in the public sector on the other hand it has also expanded women’s options in the labour market.
Despite the fact that women have been allowed to vote and participate in the democratic process on the same terms as men since 1928, in 2000 only 20 percent of Westminster Members of Parliament were women and in 2001 only 28 percent of local government councillors were women (EOC 2001).
Although there has been a feminisation of the labour market, the increase in women’s workforce participation can have disastrous effects on their health because of the double burden they have to shoulder, at home they take care of children and perform domestic tasks which are unpaid as well as doing their paid job.
The General Household Survey of 1998 showed that the majority of carers were women who provided more than a hundred hours of care per week which was far more than any paid worker would do. It has been shown that caring is costly in various ways, for one there is loss of earnings and the rate of adults providing care who are in paid employment is low, the effect is even greater for women than men and greatest of all in the case of a mother providing care for a disabled child Arber and Ginn(1995): Baldwin (1985).
In addition costs that are associated with disability like house adaptations to accommodate special equipment and higher transport costs.
There is also the cost to the carer in terms of the stress and strain (Glendinning and Millar1992; Pahl 2006).
Social policy is beginning to acknowledge the contribution of carers, one way was the introduction of the Carer’s Act 1985 which imposed an obligation on local authorities, however the support that carers receive is still limited.
Financial support is also provided by the social security system with benefits like carer’s allowance and disabled person’s tax credit for low paid disabled workers.
There are also many ways in which care can be paid for Ungerson (2000); see also Ungerson (2006).
The way social security is arranged and its effects on women can be attributed to the architects of the welfare system who were so used to patriarchal assumptions about respective roles of male breadwinners and female homemakers that the National Insurance system for example was founded on the idea that married women would mainly be financially dependent on their husbands and although obvious biased elements have since been removed, the inheritance of the assumptions on which the system was founded remains.
Lewis and Piachaud (1992) demonstrated that women have always been poorer than men by showing the proportion of women amongst adults in receipt of poor relief or social assistance was at around 60 percent and was the same at the end of the 20th century.
Women are the main recipients of most benefits and rely more on means tested benefits even though it means greater personal scrutiny, rather than contribution based benefits like jobseekers allowance, incapacity benefit and industrial injury benefit because these types of benefit rely on the recipient having been employed, and for women their work patterns are sometimes interrupted when they take time out to raise children and therefore their national insurance contributions are affected. Women are also in some cases hidden claimants because they receive benefits as dependents of male breadwinners, and for this reason, the welfare state may also function directly to make women dependent on men, although housing and social security provision has provided at least some measure of independence to women like those escaping from violent or dysfunctional relationships.
Donzelot (1979) has observed that families seem to have extended functions and are subject by the welfare state to greater levels of surveillance and control for example women’s performance as mothers and informal carers may be subject to supervision by healthcare and social service professionals. ‘The family has not lost its functions, but it has lost control. It is still the major arena for the care of dependents, but traditional female tasks are now defined and managed outside the family and by men’. Pascall (1997: 23). This is seen in the cases of lone parents 90 percent of whom are women who will have social assistance benefits withdrawn if they should cohabit and they can be compelled to cooperate with the making of child support assessments against the father(s) of their child(ren).
In terms of work the, mother -as-work policy ignores that child care is also work and lone mothers stand little chance of becoming equal stakeholders because they must be both breadwinners and carers, and the position at present is that lone mothers are likely to be praised for the paid work they do and condemned as ‘welfare dependent’ for the unpaid work they do and the eradication of the Lone Parent Premium to income support which directly disadvantaged many lone parents most of whom are women.
In recent years studies have shown that pensioners are far more likely than the working population to experience ongoing poverty, between 1998 and 2001, 18 percent of pensioners experienced persistent poverty as compared to 7 percent of the working population. Studies have also found that in recent decades older women and those from ethnic minorities are more likely to experience poverty than other pensioners.
Findings from these studies led Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown to state in 2002: ‘ Our aim is to end pensioner poverty in our country’. the introduction of a pension credit in October 2003 which guaranteed a minimum income of half of those people in this age group in the UK attempted to meet this goal but the success of this policy depends on all those entitled to claiming the benefit actually doing so Flaherty et al (2004).
The majority of people over state pension age do retire from the labour market, but as longevity has increased the labour markets have tightened and retirement has become in Townsend’s words ‘ a kind of mass redundancy’ (1991:6).
As a group, old peoples vulnerability to poverty is not as great as it was in the post second world war period, but this should not mask the fact that there is now greater inequality between older people than before.
Since the number of old people both as a proportion of the total population and in absolute terms has grown this means that pensioner poverty is still a major issue.
The employment of older people can be sensitive to changes in the labour market conditions and they may be shut out of jobs when the demand for labour falls.
Age concern (see McEwan 1990), argue that older people are frequently subject to discrimination if they choose to re-enter the labour market often on mistaken assumptions about their reliability and adaptability.
Additionally when older people do eventually become frail they suffer the same problems associated with disability.
The lack of provision of universal pension in this country is out of sync with most industrialised countries, although the introduction of stakeholder pensions for people with no access to private pensions and the introduction of free eye tests has gone some way in helping pensioners at a disadvantage.
Feminists tend to view welfare state provision as being important for improving women’s lives but it also reinforces female dependency on men and the sexual division of labour.
Some strands of feminism stress that women are closer to nature and are naturally more caring and less aggressive and they address the world ‘in a different voice’ Gilligan (1982).
Other strands of feminism discard this view and assert that the gendered nature of society is the exact product of power relations and patriarchy. It is a result of the dominance of men over women and can be rejected.
So in conclusion, having assessed and considered all the evidence and studies on gender and poverty, it is clear that although successive governments have through legislation and policies attempted to lessen the poverty of women, the gap between the sexes still exists and women are still very disadvantaged and are poorer than men and a major reason is the structure of the welfare state which contributes to and reinforces the differences.