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Column: Austerity has an unequal impact on women. So let’s fix this.

Statistically speaking, spending cuts hit women hardest – but protecting disadvantaged groups should be at the heart of the Budget, write Orla O’Connor and Clara Fischer.

Orla O'Connor & Clara Fischer

RECENTLY THE FAWCETT Society, the leading civil society organisation working toward the amelioration of gender inequalities in the UK, launched its campaign against the disproportionate effects of austerity on women.

According to the Cutting Women Out Campaign, women are triply disadvantaged by government policies purportedly aimed at redressing budgetary deficits, as women are critically impacted by slashed benefits, jobs cuts, and a reduction in services. Owing to previously existing and deeply entrenched gender inequalities, women “entered this recession on an unequal economic footing”, and are now even more susceptible to bearing the brunt of austerity and, with it, increased inequality.

While the campaign has been broadly welcomed by civil society organisations in the U.K., there are ample signs that the time is now ripe for a similar focus on austerity and its implications for inequality in the Irish context.

Research undertaken by think-tanks such as TASC, and by economists and social policy analysts, clearly shows us that groups already experiencing inequality have, over the last number of years, seen further increases in levels of inequality owing to successive governments’ economic policies. Indeed, austerity measures adopted by this and the previous government are impacting upon the poorest in our society to a far greater and critical extent, and groups subject to inequalities – such as women, lone parents, and people with disabilities – are suffering disproportionately.

Lone parents

Given that Budget 2013 is currently being drawn up, it is paramount that Government look at the effects its measures will have in terms of inequality before final decisions are made. Importantly, the onus rests on Governement to ensure the next budget does not further exacerbate the disadvantaging of certain groups in our society, and that the current pattern of systematic inequitable treatment of said groups is reversed.

The existence of just such a pattern of repeated and detrimental measures aimed at redressing the current budgetary deficit, but effectively entrenching and increasing inequalities for those already marginalised, is particularly evident and stark when viewed in context. For instance, the group with the highest at-risk of poverty rate and with the lowest amount of income in Ireland, are lone parents. Nonethless, the weekly income of lone parents dependent on social welfare has been disproportionately reduced by €16.30 in Budgets 2009 and 2010.

A TASC analysis of Budget 2011 found that:

The category most adversely affected by the measured Budget 2011 changes was the‘single with children’ group. This category has by far the lowest average income of all the categories studied, and has a very high ratio of females (73 per cent) to males (27 per cent). The cumulative impact of the budgetary changes on this category caused individuals in this category to lose five per cent of their income on average.

Budget 2012 repeated this pattern. Lone parents were targeted with cuts to the One Parent Family Payment, cuts to Child Benefit for third and subsequent children and cuts to the Back to School clothing and footwear allowance. If the parent is a part-time worker, they were also negatively impacted by the reduction in the entitlement to Jobseeker’s Benefit from a six to a five day week.

In addition, changes proposed to the One Parent Family Payment from now until 2015 – to both reduce the upper age limit of the youngest child to seven years to be eligible for the payment, and the reductions to the earnings disregard – will further increase the number of lone parents living in poverty, and will make it harder for a lone parent to move out of poverty and into sustainable employment.

As OPEN, the national organisation representing lone parents, explains, this means that lone parents “face the Hobson’s choice of leaving their job or attempting to increase their hours, finding appropriate childcare and finding the money to pay for it”. In light of the fact that we are one of the worst countries in Europe for the provision of affordable childcare (households with young children spending up to 41 per cent of income on such services), this pattern of targeting lone parents in successive budgets essentially leaves them with no choice at all.

The above outline of repeated economic disproportionality inflicted upon lone parents, the majority of whom are women, is indicative of a wider trend in the entrenching of inequality among disadvantaged groups. Similar analyses exist with regard to women more generally – for example, as women are more densely populated in the lower income brackets, which are again disproportionately targeted through the Universal Social Charge (a highly regressive tax that comes into force at its highest level of seven per cent at just above the minimum wage) or through cuts to social welfare and child benefit.

More reliant

Given these emerging patterns of the disproportional effects tax increases and cuts are having on different sections of society, it is vital that the urgency of redressing inequalities introduced and maintained by government economic policies is recognised. There are choices to be made. For instance, if Budget 2013 places greater emphasis on expenditure cuts, then women will be disproportionately negatively affected. Women are more reliant on social welfare and public services, particularly women with children.

There are alternatives though, such as changing the ratio of tax increases to public expenditure cuts – alternatives that could reverse the current trend of exacerbated inequality.

As members of a coalition seeking to countermand the disproportional impacts of austerity measures, we are calling upon Government to rethink the way in which budgets and economic policies are currently devised, and to follow best international practice by introducing equality budgeting.

Specifically, the Equality Budgeting Campaign is asking the Government to make explicit the impact this Budget will have on groups experiencing inequality, includig young people, women, lone parents and people with disabilities. All budgetary measures should be subjected to an equality audit, with a full analysis being undertaken to identify how different sections of society will be affected. Protecting disadvantaged groups in Budget 2013 must be at the core of government policy in order to ensure that those who have experienced the brunt of this recession are not further isolated and marginalised. For a fair and equitable Ireland, nothing less will do now.

Orla O’Connor is acting CEO and Head of Policy at the National Women’s Council of Ireland. Clara Fischer holds a PhD in political philosophy and feminist theory, and is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network.

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Orla O'Connor & Clara Fischer

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