On the eve of both the Spring Budget and International Women’s Day, Dr Sarah Marie Hall examines the gendered nature of austerity and argues for a new economic system that addresses social inequalities and values caring work.
- Gaps created by a retreating welfare state are typically attended to by women in communities and families, underpinned by care work necessary for social reproduction
- Austerity is more than an economic condition; it is social and personal too
- The Women’s Budget Group have developed ‘Plan F: a feminist economic strategy for a caring and sustainable economy’
- The long term goal must be to create an economic system that fairly distributes caring responsibilities, labour and costs, between women and men, and between families and the wider community
- The Government and the Budget should actively addresses social inequalities that are the symptom, not the cause, of everyday austerity
On Wednesday 8th March this year, the UK government will find itself in an uncanny predicament. As the Chancellor prepares his Spring budget announcement – rumoured to include yet further cuts to disability benefits, and few measures to address rising inflation that hits family budgets – events will also be underway as part of International Women’s Day. Observed since the early 1900’s, International Women’s Day is a far reaching and widely celebrated campaign. The theme for this year ‘Be bold for change’, is rather apt, given this diary clash.
Austerity policies, on the face of it, might seem gender neutral. Measures to reduce spending on public services and welfare, in a bid to reduce the national deficit, would appear to have wide-ranging impacts that cut across social groups. In fact, the main differences that tend to be discussed are those between working class and middle class communities. But as the Women’s Budget Group have long argued, the reality is much more complex.
There’s a long history of research showing that women bear the brunt of economic crises: that recessions, downturns, austerity, economic changes imposed from above are not evenly felt or distributed across society. Feminist economists, in particular, have identified that gaps created by a retreating welfare state are typically attended to by women in communities and families, underpinned by care work necessary for social reproduction. Much of this work draws on large-scale surveys and census data, or analysing austerity budgets according to financial costs. But statistics only tell a partial story.
In my ethnographic research with families in Greater Manchester, I found that austerity is more than an economic condition. It is social, impacting on families, communities and relationships with other people. It is also very personal, having real, intimate and deep impacts on a person, and of their hopes and aspirations for themselves and their loved ones.
Findings from this research are currently on tour across Greater Manchester, in what is known as the Everyday Austerity Exhibition. The exhibition was created with Stef Bradley, a zine maker from Liverpool who illustrated some of the personal stories of my participants. These images are displayed alongside audio and material objects collected during the project. Together, they show just how personal austerity can be; scrimping and saving, complicated caring responsibilities, and changes in hopes, dreams and aspirations. They also tell a distinctly gendered story; where women were providing the social glue that held their families, friendships and communities together.
Austerity disproportionally affects women; and when it does affect them, it can be in very different ways. In my own work, I have started to move towards ideas and forms of analysis that account for this diversity, using ‘intersectionality’. An intersectional approach is one that aims to explore how social positions like class, gender, ethnicity, etc. intersect and shape inequalities. It means recognising that the experience of being a ‘woman’ is not homogenous or fixed, but can shift depending on society, culture and tradition.
Work has recently started on a project that I am involved with, which aims to explore these very issues: austerity, gender, ethnicity and race. Led by the Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede, and using statistical analysis of the budget, alongside qualitative research in Coventry and Manchester, the project provides the first account of the intersectional impacts of austerity policies. This work, funded by The Barrow Cadbury Trust, is anticipated to evidence what many people instinctively already know: that austerity is a socially uneven condition, and one that is distinctly and inherently gendered.
In an ideal world, of course, the budget would not disproportionately affect women, and would in fact actively address the gendered burdens of care that persist within our current economic policies. The Women’s Budget Group have developed what they call ‘Plan F: a feminist economic strategy for a caring and sustainable economy’.
In it, they outline how policies that centre the essential work of care can be recognised and supported, such as reversing cuts to public services and social security, investing in social infrastructure (care, health, education and training services, social security and housing), and raising the minimum wage to a level that ensures a decent living. It is argued that these measures, amongst many other measures, can be funded by scaling back tax give-aways and actively pursuing aggressive tax avoidance and evasion schemes, and by cancelling plans for a new Trident submarine.
The long term goal must be to create an economic system that fairly distributes caring responsibilities, labour and costs, between women and men, and between families and the wider community, and which actively addresses social inequalities that are the symptom, not the cause, of everyday austerity.