While the UK coalition government is carrying out cuts to public services spending not seen since World War II, they argue it is as fair as it can be. Economists, and women’s rights organizations disagree, saying the cuts will hit women harder than men and risk a rolling back on women’s equality.
With the third biggest budget deficit in the EU, the UK is struggling to make ends meet. During the past year the coalition government has presented cuts in public services, welfare benefits, and public sector jobs. Women make up 65 per cent of the public sector where half a million jobs are to be cut, they tend to live longer and thus rely more on health care and social security, and as mothers are dependent on affordable child care. Thus, economists and women’s rights organizations have calculated the impending cuts will have a greater impact on women than on men.
“Poorer households tend to get more from the system than they put in, so to the extent that women tend to be poorer they are going to benefit more from public spending. If you make substantial cuts to public spending, it is going to have an adverse affect on women relative to men,” said economist Howard Reed, director of Landman Economics that recently analyzed the distributional impact of the 2010 spending review.
Susan Himmelweit, professor in economics at the Open University in London and member of the Women’s Budget Group (WBG), agrees with Reed’s analysis and is worried that the cuts in public services will take women out of the work force.
“Women and their families are more dependent on public services and when they’re no longer there, women often end up filling the gap, which in turn can lead to women not being able to work full-time or not at all,” Himmelweit said.
Back to the kitchen
As part of reforming the welfare system, the government wants to replace the current 50 different benefits and payments with only one; the universal credit. The universal credit will be paid to the primary earner of the household, which in most households is a man. Reed thinks this will lead to a reduction in the employment rate for women.
“I think that a lot of people in the conservative party feel that we need to get back to the 1950’s ideal of the male breadwinner household where the woman stays home and looks after the kids. So it’s very ideological, I’d even say it’s anti-economic. It would be much better for us to increase women’s employment rate. We’d probably have to spend more subsidizing child care, but we’d have higher national output because we’d have more people in work,” said Reed.
Diane Elson, chair of WBG and professor at the sociology department at the University of Essex, draws a similar conclusion from the government’s welfare reforms.
“They seem to think that it is worse for people to be dependent on the state than for women to be dependent on men.”
A halting assessment
In August last year UK’s leading equality charity, The Fawcett Society, took the coalition government to court for failing to properly asses the impact the June 2010 emergency budget would have on women.
Four months later the case was dismissed for not being “arguable”, but the ruling also said that policies behind national budgets are subject to equality law and deserve further scrutiny.
The HM Treasury is confident that the assessments carried out are complete: “All departments ensure that equality issues are considered when assessing options for spending reductions – they have a legal obligation to do so,” an HM Treasury spokesperson said.
A WBG report published in partnership with The Fawcett Society tells another story, outlining in detail the deficiencies in the government’s gender equality impact assessments. The overall conclusion is that they are far from adequate.
“They don’t want the equality assessment to be better. It’s just window dressing,” said Himmelweit, one of the contributors to the report.
Comparing the government’s assessments of the distributional impacts of the spending review of 2010 to his own, Howard Reed is also critical.
“What worries me about the assessments the treasury have done on recent policies, is that it was a very partial an incomplete analysis, it didn’t take as many things into account as we did, so I’d say it was quite misleading,” Reed said.
Gender responsive budgeting
Other countries in Europe have gone beyond the general assessment and fully integrated a gender impact analysis in the budget. In Austria gender equality as an objective and a fundamental principle of budgeting, is part of the constitution since 2009.
In Sweden the government and all local authorities are obliged to do gender impact analyses of their policies. Anna Klerby, PhD student in economics at Dalarna University, has conducted multiple research projects on gender budgeting in Sweden. Her experience is that gender responsive budgeting is essential to achieve equality between men and women.
“I’d say it’s crucial, because at the end of the day it all comes down to money, and if men and women are not equals economically, with the same possibilities, we will never have gender equality,” Klerby said.
However, she also agrees with Reed that ideology plays a significant role.
“The liberal parole has always been ‘the freedom of the individual’, which contradicts the concept of gender power relations saying there are societal structures that limits this freedom depending on your gender,” Klerby said.
The alternative ways
UK Chancellor George Osborne has said the cuts to public services are “tough but fair” and most importantly he means they are necessary to pull the country back from “the brink of bankruptcy.” Economists Reed and Himmelweit disagree.
“If you’re cutting public spending it will effect vulnerable people because they are the one’s using the services that cost money, but of course there are other sectors to cut in, the military budget for example,” said Himmelweit.
Reed is convinced raising taxes would have been a much more gender sensitive way of decreasing the deficit.
“You could definitely raise taxes in a much more gender equitable way, partly because of the distribution of earnings, men tend to be higher earners so if you increase direct taxation that’s usually going to have a bigger impact on men than women, so that would be more gender equitable,” said Reed. “But the cuts haven’t been designed with gender equalities in mind, that wasn’t one of the objective that was foremost in the government’s mind.”