Everyone will have been experiencing the financial pinch of the cost-of-living crisis lately. Household energy, fuel, groceries, and interest rates are all increasing while wages are stagnating, with welfare benefits falling far below the levels needed to keep us out of poverty. However, whilst everyone is experiencing the financial pinch, the cost-of-living crisis is disproportionately impacting women.
Women have been bearing the brunt of welfare reform long before the recent cost-of-living crisis. Research conducted by the Women’s Budget Group remarked that 85% of the burden of reforms to the welfare and Tax system until 2020, will be carried by women. The 5 week wait to receive the first Universal Credit payments was already driving single parent households further into debt and poverty. The 5 week wait has disproportionately impacted women as In Northern Ireland 91% of single parent households are headed by a woman. Authors Jane Millar and Roy Salisbury (2018:2, Understanding social policy) state that the ‘Welfare reform Act 2016 repeals the Child poverty Act 2010’, which leaves us questioning the ethical and moral ideologies motivating government Policy.
Marginalisation of women is also clear within joint Universal Credit claims, where there is a child element included, claimants are forced to nominate a lead carer role. This role is disproportionately being assigned to women. Leaving researchers to liken the phenomena as a return to the female homemaker and male breadwinner model, ‘which is out of step with contemporary norms’. There is also a single household payment process which continues to limit women’s financial independence and makes women more vulnerable to domestic abuse via financial control.
In 2020 research by the Women’s Regional Consortium described women as the ‘shock absorbers’ of Austerity measures. Their research highlighted how women often skip meals or do without in order to provide for or budget for their families.
As highlighted in the Women’s Policy Group NI Feminist Recovery Plan, more women lost their jobs during the pandemic than men. This was mainly due to the precarious nature of the sectors in which women tend to work such as hospitality. Women are also more likely than men to be employed on a part time basis due to paid or unpaid caring responsibilities. Therefore, women are more likely to be solely or partially reliant on benefit income which was cut at the tail end of 2021. Although benefit levels were increased in April 2022, this was only by 3.1% which is far below the rate of inflation meaning women will be bearing the brunt of financial stresses yet again.
NHS Community care and nursing staff, who are disproportionately women have also been subsidising the petrol costs necessary in delivering much-needed care to patients. NHS terms and conditions dictate that a mileage allowance of just 56pence per mile up to 3,500 miles can be claimed by these staff which they are then taxed on. The Minister for health has announced a temporary increase to the rate after the first 3,500 miles from 20p to 30p. This means workers are essentially having to pay to facilitate the care of patients out of their own pockets. These staff were also promised a 1-1.5% non-consolidated payment in January 2022 by the Northern Ireland Health Minister which has yet to be released 6 months down the line due to Stormont not functioning. NHS Scotland has recognised the hardship the cost-of-living crisis has had on these staff and have introduced a temporary 5p increase to this allowance, yet our executive is content for women to continue paying from their own pockets and refuse to reform a functioning government here. Private community care staff here in NI are also in a worse off predicament as the mileage rate, if any is set by the employer at usually a lower rate than NHS staff receive.
The non-functioning executive is also having a major impact on women’s finances as local relief measures cannot be put in place whilst we have no budget agreed. Luckily Deirdre Hargey, the Minister for the Department of Communities, has been able to champion for legislation to allow the cost-of-living payment to be made here in the absence of a functioning government. However, much more needs to be done to ensure more women and families are being provided with relief. The £650 cost of living payment excludes those in receipt of carers allowance, you must be in receipt of an accompanying benefit such as Universal Credit or Tax Credits in order to qualify for the payment. Unpaid carers will also not qualify if they work full time and are not in receipt of low-income benefits such as Universal Credit. As these care roles mainly fall on women this means again women are being expected to absorb the shock of the cost-of-living crisis.
Governments continue to rely on women’s good will rather than paying them their worth in sectors such as social care. The cost-of-living crisis looks set to continue and women cannot be expected to continue to bear the brunt of the Government’s shortfalls. Some Ministers in NI continue to do their best without a functioning executive. Deirdre Hargey (Minister for DFC) was able to introduce a grant for those who are experiencing the financial barrier to work of upfront childcare costs and are in receipt of UC through the Advisor Discretionary Fund. Recently Michelle McIlveen (Education Minister) has increased the School uniform grant by 20% for those who are eligible . Both Policies will offset some of the financial pressure experienced by women in NI, however, more needs to be done and cannot be done whilst political priorities are being focused elsewhere.
To read more about the research by the Women’s Budget Group into how women are bearing the brunt of the cost of living crisis click here
By: Rosemary Holmes
Bold Women Blogging is a public submission blog. Posts do not necessarily represent the views of WRDA but rather operates as a platform for open discussion to encourage women’s participation in social and political issues. To find out more visit this page.