The feminisation of poverty and the myth of the 'welfare queen'

Governments are constructing social policy based on misrepresentations and stereotypes about poor people and welfare claimants, rather than by reference to the structural inequalities that affect everyone, argues Kate Donald

The ‘feminisation of poverty’ is now an undeniable reality. Worldwide, women are more likely to be poor, employed in precarious, low-paid labour, and less likely to have access to land, credit and education. Not only do they suffer disproportionately from the effects of poverty itself and the human rights denials that accrue from it, but also from the increasingly heavy-handed way in which poverty is governed across the world.  Being female and poor subjects you to unique forms of stigma and control, as well as forcing you to bear the brunt of supposedly gender-neutral policies.

The gender-specific and demeaning measures of control and containment that are applied to women overwhelmingly focus on their bodies and reproductive capacity. In many countries in the world, including most of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East abortion remains illegal except in very proscribed circumstances. Prohibition does not deter women from seeking abortions, but forces them submit to more unsafe abortions, putting their health, fertility or even life at risk. Planned Parenthood estimate that 19 million women and girls worldwide resort to unsafe abortions every year; 70,000 of them will die as a result, more than 96% of them from the world’s poorest countries (in many of which abortion is illegal).  For example, in Argentina, each year, between 460,000 and 600,000 women have an illegal abortion; abortion complications are the main cause of maternal death, with an estimated 400 deaths each year.  Clearly, it is poor women, without any hope of access to a private doctor or international travel who are most exposed to these risks.  Thus such policies, targeted to control female reproductive capacity (as if men were not involved), promote a selective penalisation of the poorest women.

The regulation of sex work is another way in which poor women are exposed to surveillance, invasion of privacy and criminalisation. Detention, raids, deportation, evictions and removal of children are often carried out without a formal warrant, arrest or other due process, as if the mere fact of engaging in sex work waived one’s rights. Even worse, in many countries abuse by police and other state agents including extortion, rape and murder is committed with impunity. Many laws also severely constrict sex workers’ freedom of movement, through zoning and registration, barring them from living together or assigning their work to isolated areas, rendering them yet more vulnerable to many forms of violence. Criminalisation drives sex workers to distance themselves from authorities and public services, entrenching their poverty and isolation and endangering their health. Thus, many sex workers, the majority of whom are poor women, are unable to access their fundamental rights, such as rights to health, equality, privacy, association, family life, housing and education. Sex workers who experience further forms of discrimination because of their sexuality, race, ethnicity or disability are particularly at risk.  Of course, in the criminalisation of both abortion and sex work, it is almost always a woman who is punished for an action or ‘crime’ that undeniably involved a man.

To be female and poor in itself attracts a unique stigma. The 1980s saw the remarkable rise of the ‘welfare queen’ as popular bogey (wo)man of choice in the USA. This was fuelled by Reagan’s ideological crusade against an ‘excessive’ ‘soft’ welfare system and driven by racist and sexist stereotypes of ‘lazy’ African-American women, often single mothers.  Indeed, the single mother is a recurring motif in the rhetoric surrounding welfare and benefits across the Western world.  The idea that single women ‘churn out’ babies in order to generate more income or obtain free housing is commonplace in the UK and was a core part of the vivid American ‘welfare queen’ stereotype.   Attacks on the integrity of single mothers are common; they are portrayed as less capable parents - despite evidence to the contrary - and are improbably blamed for a host of social ills, including, predictably, the riots that took place in the UK in the summer of 2011. The prevalent stigma borne by poor females in many societies is viscerally illustrated by British newspaper columnist James Delingpole who described several of the “great scourges” of contemporary Britain: “aggressive all-female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye” (The Times newspaper, April 13, 2006 ). Disturbingly, the stigma of female poverty and single motherhood has become embedded in public policy in many different countries: women are all too often the ‘accidental’ victims of supposedly gender neutral measures, such as budget cuts and welfare reform.  

In the UK, the Fawcett Society have shown that women are shouldering 70% of the budget cuts, with the cuts falling especially harshly on single mothers. The Women’s Budget Group has calculated that single mothers will lose 18.5% of their net income due to changes in the tax and welfare system. Rules which take lone parents off income support earlier than previously may create a sharp drop in household income for those women that cannot find work and even force women and their children back into abusive or unhealthy relationships. In other contexts, restrictive welfare provisions deter abused women from leaving abusive relationships by increasing their financial dependency or by making it harder for them to move.  Coupled with cuts to refuges and domestic violence prevention programmes in countries across the globe, there is an increasing likelihood that austerity measures may result in danger to women’s lives. One county in Kansas, USA even briefly ceased prosecution of domestic violence cases, citing budget cuts.

Discriminatory and outdated attitudes are often unashamedly glorified in legislation. ‘Spouse in the house’ policies in parts of Canada that deny women social assistance if they move in with a man, and similar legislation in Australia which restricts parenting payments for co-locating single mothers, perpetuate the discriminatory stereotype that any man cohabiting with a woman must be supporting her financially. The right to privacy is not deemed to apply for welfare claimants. In many jurisdictions, including in Canada, Australia and the US, unannounced home visits by welfare caseworkers is a common strategy to ensure their clients - typically women - are not being supported by another person. In San Diego, California, unannounced home visits precede the issue of benefits, and inspectors may look inside closets, bathroom cabinets and even trash cans. The UK government has just announced ‘tough’ new sanctions for claimants purporting to be lone parents who are found to be living with someone else.  Benefit fraud is not a practice to be endorsed, but the real issue is whether the perpetrators have genuine economic alternatives, and also the degree to which benefit fraud is pursued and publicised compared to, say tax evasion, which is a far more costly crime.

The shift to conditionality in welfare -  itself revealing of paternalistic quid-pro-quo understandings of welfare as something you have to earn to atone for the personal failing of poverty -  also disproportionately punishes women in poverty.  Schemes that tie welfare payments to a child’s school attendance or enrolment in health programmes  increase the responsibility and work of women (who in most households already assume the principal burden of care and domestic work), remove autonomy and entrench unhelpful gendered roles and stereotypes.  Moreover, such initiatives have not proven to be effective.  Many of these policies have become a core part of welfare regimes and austerity programmes across a number of countries, based on the none-too-subtle view that welfare should be a temporary stop-gap measure until a woman finds a male breadwinner.

The single mother; the woman seeking an abortion; the prostitute; the' welfare queen': poor women are made to serve as a timeless moral scapegoat.  These classifications need to be rejected. We should recognise the challenges that women living in poverty face and fight to enhance and increase their inclusion in decision making. A major task in this endeavour is tackling head-on the negative stereotypes of poor women perpetuated in the media and in government policies, and ensuring that the voices of poor women can be heard in public discourse and policy design, both overwhelmingly dominated by wealthy, privileged men.  

As Loïc Wacquant, Wendy Chan, Vijay Nagaraj, Deborah Padfield and others have argued on openDemocracy, the governance of poverty and welfare is becoming more paternalistic in general. To be poor and female is to face double discrimination. We must not allow governments to continue to deny or claim ignorance about the negative effect their policies have on women. This should be understood as an international legal obligation to uphold the universal rights to equality and non-discrimination.  These rights, as well as those to privacy and family life, education, and an adequate standard of living, are severely compromised by these policies.  Governments around the world are constructing social policy according to misrepresentations and stereotypes about poor people and welfare claimants, rather than by reference to the structural inequalities that affect everyone. This must change; gender inequality and economic inequality are two great blights on our societies and must be tackled in tandem.

With thanks to  Tamara Walsh at the University of Queensland for additional research  

To read more articles in openDemocracy 50.50's dialogue on 'Governing Poverty : Risking Rights' click here

 

 

 

 

About the author

Kate Donald is a human rights researcher, formerly at the International Council on Human Rights Policy.  She has recently worked with the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on a report to the UN General Assembly on unpaid care and human rights. She has also conducted research on the penalisation of poverty and examined the interface between human rights and public policy, including sexuality, corruption and business.