I was very pleased and proud to be chosen by Chwarae Teg to work with them to find out more about women’s experiences of poverty and develop possible solutions. I have spent almost all my working life fighting for equality and social justice and was in fact one of the founders of Chwarae Teg back in the day, so this was a subject close to my heart.
At the Bevan Foundation we have a long track record of highlighting the blight of poverty on people’s lives. Unfortunately, with few resources, what we can say is usually constrained by the available statistics on poverty. For groups within the population, other than the broad categories of child, working age and pensioner, the statistics tell us virtually nothing. The opportunity to listen to women’s experiences and to think about how that fits with the conventional approaches was one to grab enthusiastically.
There were some salutary reminders and a few surprises throughout the process of this work.
One was just how high the risk of poverty is for women. By that, I don’t mean the statistical risk, which is only very slightly higher for women than men. I mean the ‘lived threat’ that comes from not having enough income from work to avoid poverty, so having to rely on a partner to get by. Keeping a roof over your head means keeping a relationship going. And when a relationship breaks down, women are tipped into crisis. Now, as in the past, having a decently paid job remains vital to protect women from poverty both immediately and in the longer term. Having a decently paid job means having good quality, reliable childcare at all ages.
The surprises? One was just how much every penny counts. The women we interviewed knew just how much they had to spend on each essential, but an unexpected expense could throw them off course. School uniform, a taxi trip to hospital, a broken fridge or funeral expenses were all items that women had had to accommodate from a very small budget. And when times got really tight, women just went without. For some, that meant foregoing haircuts and meals out. Others went without food, heating and walked to work for lack of bus fare. And children always, always came first.
Another surprise was that the gender pay gap is not as significant to the lowest paid women. Closing the gap is a mantra for feminists everywhere, yet the worst-paid ten per cent of women would gain just 29p an hour if they had parity with men. Low-paid women workers stand to gain far more – £1 an hour – if they were paid the real Living Wage of £9.20 an hour. This demonstrates that understanding individual women’s experiences is essential to know what interventions are needed to improve their position.
All this and much more is in the report. The report isn’t, I hope, a dry and dusty analysis sprinkled with some quotes for authenticity and a few hasty recommendations to round off. I hope it is an accurate reflection of the daily lives of thousands of women who struggle to make ends meet. Women who go without for the sake of their children. Women who have limited prospects for escaping poverty unless society changes radically.
I hope that our findings will prompt action: a real Living Wage for all, a new deal for childcare, decent benefits and investment in adult learning are all feasible. The time to do it is now.