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Gender and poverty in the UK: Inside the household and across the life course

Unravelling the components of couples’ incomes and investigating individual trajectories over the life course are essential to produce a more rounded and complete picture of the links between gender and poverty, says Fran Bennett. 

Row of terraced houses stretches into the distance Houses on Union Road, Lincoln, England. Photo: Rept0n1xThis section of the openDemocracy website, 50.50, often runs articles on ‘gendered poverty’. More generally, however - especially outside international development and the global south - a gender perspective is often missing from debates about poverty.  

Yet the causes and consequences of poverty, and the routes in and out, are profoundly affected by gender. And taking this fully on board would have fundamental implications for analysis and policy.

Definitions should be clarified first. We see poverty as integrally linked to (lack of) material resources. Poverty has many aspects besides the material, of course. But if this is ignored, it becomes hard to differentiate poverty from broader conditions such as (lack of) wellbeing.

When it comes to gender, this is not the same as sex (biological differences between women and men), but is a key element of social relations based on perceived and actual differences between the sexes, and centrally related to power creating unequal access to resources. So gender is societal and structural in nature.

In poverty debates, gender understood in this way is often rendered invisible. Discussions such as those about the problems of ‘parenting in poverty’, or the risks of poverty run by ‘workless households’, employ a gender neutral vocabulary which conceals significant issues about women’s and men’s differential relationships to caring, the labour market and the welfare state.

Even when gender appears to be a major focus of analysis, this can just mean counting what proportion or how many individuals of each sex live in poverty. In most countries, this usually reveals more women than men in poverty (though risks have also been increasing for some groups of men). This reflects the greater risk run by women living in single adult households, especially lone parents and single elderly women. Investigation of the links between gender and poverty is therefore often limited to female headed households (as in the ‘feminisation of poverty’) or single adult households. Or, alternatively, discussion of ‘gender and poverty’ turns out to involve facts and figures about broader inequalities between women and men and the resulting higher risks of poverty for women in particular, but not in practice exploring the processes by which one may lead to the other.

These methods of analysis are often used in an attempt to resolve the significant problems for gender analysis caused by poverty being measured at household level. But they are at best partial, if not misleading, if we aim to achieve a nuanced understanding of how gender (defined in the terms above) and poverty are inter-linked.

The definition of ‘female headed’ households can vary between countries because of the way surveys are carried out, and in some countries can include some couple households. In addition, the numbers of female headed and single adult households tend to vary in different countries and over time in part for other reasons (such as living arrangements) in addition to those related solely to gender issues. And the likelihood of gender inequalities leading to poverty for women or men - risk resulting in reality - depends on the coincidence of a range of factors, often also including those linked to the kind of household in which someone lives. 

Over a decade ago, Jane Millar suggested that a gender sensitive understanding of poverty could be reached only by augmenting such perspectives by looking inside couple (and wider) households in addition. The potential for ‘hidden’ poverty, and/or different degrees of poverty, within households as a result of the unfair sharing of resources is well-known, and is not discussed in detail here. But Millar’s proposal went beyond this, to suggest examining on the one hand an individual’s contribution to household resources, and on the other the extent of their financial dependence on others within the household. This helps to reveal two crucial but less obvious links between gender and poverty: the gendered processes that result in both partners in couple households living in poverty, and the likelihood of the risk of poverty for an individual becoming reality if the couple household they live in were to dissolve.

To our knowledge, this specific approach has not been followed up explicitly by others. But some researchers have pursued similar directions. In terms of the contribution of individuals to household resources, for example, detailed unpicking of the (superficially gender neutral) phenomenon of ‘in work poverty’ has been undertaken, especially in the European Union. Women workers have been found to be more likely to experience in work poverty because of their own employment characteristics and low earnings, whereas for male workers their family/household circumstances - especially the employment situation of their female partner - are more important. This begins to demonstrate the influence of gender issues, including the traditional division of labour, in the shared poverty of couple households, rather than focusing solely on women or men living alone.

This issue has become increasingly important in the profile of poverty measured by income in recent years. As more women entered the labour market, this drove up median household income because more couples had ‘second earners’. This in turn meant that the income poverty line, a percentage of the median household income, was higher - resulting in it being more difficult than previously to escape poverty as a single earner couple. At the same time, the erosion of rights to non-means-tested earnings replacement benefits when individuals are out of the labour market because they are unemployed, ill, or disabled, and the UK’s less than generous parental leave arrangements, give little access to alternative sources of income for partners in that situation. It is not surprising to find that the proportion of couples experiencing in work poverty would be increased if such social protection rights did not exist.

Even leaving aside the issue of (the, often gendered, unequal) income sharing within the household, therefore, core gender issues such as the division of labour, the differential rewards for paid work, and access to individual benefits are critical to the poverty of women and men in couple households. It is arguable, in addition, that the numbers of lone parents and couples experiencing in work poverty are currently under-estimated in the UK because in the official low income statistics childcare costs are not deducted, whereas benefits to help with such costs are taken into account as income. More detailed forensic analysis in both these areas is essential.

Analysis of the extent of individuals’ financial dependence within a household even if that household is not in poverty at the moment is also essential. Financial dependence is an, additional, gendered, risk of poverty. Most recently, the National Equality Panel in the UK analysed the amount of individual income of women and men. This kind of analysis is difficult because it is hard to know how to treat some family benefits or other kinds of income. But it is clear that there is a much higher gender imbalance in (lack of) financial autonomy than in poverty as conventionally measured. Large numbers of women in particular remain substantially economically dependent on their partners and families, with the relationships between individual and household income varying by ethnic group in the UK.

This lack of control over an adequate independent income can be seen as embodying financial precarity for individuals. More radically, Tony Atkinson has argued that on one conceptualisation of poverty such individuals could be seen as living in poverty at the time. But even leaving this aside, financial dependence can clearly be seen as carrying a risk of future poverty. Although complex to accomplish, tracing individual trajectories over the life course can track the influence on the gendered risks and incidence of poverty of key life events, including those that are shared but have a differential impact on women and men.

So unravelling the components of couples’ incomes and investigating individual trajectories over the life course are essential to produce a more rounded and complete picture of the links between gender and poverty. In turn, this is critical to achieving a more nuanced assessment of policy impact.  

The author takes responsibility for any errors in this article. It is based on an evidence and policy review on gender and poverty, with a focus on the UK, written by Fran Bennett and Mary Daly for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

About the author

Fran Bennett is a senior research and teaching fellow and a member of the Oxford Institute of Social Policy, University of Oxford, with interests in poverty, gender and social security issues. She also works on a self-employed basis for NGOs and others on social policy issues. She is an active member of the Women's Budget Group, which analyses government budgets, spending and policies from a gender perspective.