When austerity in the UK makes the poorest even poorer

Cuts to welfare reform in Northern Ireland, rolled out two years later than in the rest of the United Kingdom, look set to further impoverish women in an entirely predictable way.

Dawn Foster
22 April 2015

Many of the cuts that have hit households in the rest of the UK have yet to be inflicted on Northern Ireland. For years, politicians in Stormont were deadlocked, with each party refusing to implement the cuts. As the deadlines for implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill rolled round, Westminster imposed higher and higher fines whenever Northern Irish politicians refused to roll out the cuts. But finally, an agreement was reached, and the cuts look set to begin.

Women will inevitably be hardest hit when the axe falls, as mooted, jobs cuts are targeting low paid, part-time work.  “Women are facing cuts to childcare places and jobs – 177 jobs lost and 2,500 children without early years places in Northern Ireland,” Orlaith Hendron, a women’s sector lobbyist at the Women’s Resource and Development Agency said. Schemes that aim to lift women out of poverty through gaining new skills and qualifications are also at risk. “Cuts to the European Social Fund mean that education programs like GCSEs and other accredited courses run through women’s centres will also cease.”

Karen Sweeney, director of the charity Women’s Support Network said funding cuts would mean the loss of 56 full time posts, and over 140 part-time posts, throughout the women’s sector in Northern Ireland, including domestic violence refuges, help lines, employment support and training, and childcare services. A total of 4,192 women will lose out on childcare and training to help them into employment, once the cuts are enacted. 

“The women’s sector has been significantly affected by the cuts imposed across departments,” Sweeney said. “Cuts are being made to all services and this will have wide ranging, long lasting effects in terms of supporting vulnerable families, those with mental health issues, tackling unemployment, reducing child poverty and the provision of accessible childcare.” 

The welfare cuts look set to be enacted shortly, and the effect of withdrawing the social net from so many will be a particularly dangerous and gendered political move. The benefit cap in particular will hit Catholic women, who tend to be poorer anyway. The larger the family, the poorer they are - capping the level of benefits women have doesn’t retrospectively leave a family with fewer mouths to feed. Instead it deliberately plunges poor children into even more desperate poverty.

The benefit cap, currently at £25,000, stipulates that no household receives more than the cap in welfare payments, including housing benefit, child benefit, jobseekers and carers allowance. The Conservative Party have proposed lowering the cap by a further £3,000 a year to £23,000, if they win the looming general election. In England, the benefit cap has mostly affected families in London, where exorbitant rents are pushing the housing benefit bill skywards as social housing is decimated.  The number of large families it affects is so small in England as to make no considerable saving, amounting to 0.08% of total social security expenditure on working-age adults and children in 2013-14.

But Northern Ireland has far more larger families, who are proportionately more likely to live in poverty. The number of families with three or more children stood at 10.7% in the 2011 census, whereas most regions with the exception of London found around 6% of families contained three or more children The fact that the benefits cap will effect those mothers with more children, but without London’s high rents presents a new problem. Most people affected by the benefit cap so far have been in London, and councils have moved them out of the capital, forcing them to towns far from their support networks, in order to lower their housing benefit, and push them below the cap. Families hit by the cap in Northern Ireland have nowhere cheaper to move: their only option is to stay put, and receive even less money in subsistence benefits

The benefit cap is an unabashedly political move - the UK government’s rhetoric on the policy states that it’s symbolic: no one, the argument goes, should receive more in “handouts” than through working. But the problem lies in the fact that many people who claim benefits do work, but poverty wages makes state support essential even for those in work. Instead, the benefit cap focuses on women’s agency, inciting a political environment in which women who dare have children whilst poor are monstered. Even having children becomes a “lifestyle choice” rather than an enshrined human right to family life, and women’s reproductive choices are seen as fair ground for politicking. That many women with larger families have planned these families, and there are religious factors involved in forming their decision, is ignored: for the poor, human rights and agency over one’s own life are riches to be earned, rather than fundamental rights. 

Even before the cuts are enacted, women in Northern Ireland are facing higher deprivation and economic hardship post-crash. Women’s unemployment in Northern Ireland currently stands at a 25-year high. Between 2007 and 2012, unemployment rose from 4.1%  to 7.2%. Across Northern Ireland, 27% of jobs are in the civil service - losing more of these jobs, in a sector that traditionally employs large numbers of women in stable jobs, is likely to cause that figure to spike. 

As a whole, the country is the third most deprived region of the United Kingdom, but this masks some deeply entrenched poverty and stark geographical differences. Relative child poverty is projected to rise by 5% between 2010 and 2013 compared to 3% for the rest of the UK, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Sitting in a mother and baby workshop in an East Belfast primary school, employees there told tales of women approaching the centre for food parcels for the first time, and choosing between putting the heating on, or having a meal themselves: many mothers forwent food to ensure their children ate three times a day.

Introducing Universal Credit, a one payment system that aims for all benefits to be paid to one person in a household, has raised alarm amongst many in the women’s sector. Many are worried the return of the one payment system creates a system that makes financial abuse and control easier, and promotes the increasingly outdated idea of the “male breadwinner”. But escaping financial, emotional and physical abuse could also become harder: another casualty of the cuts looks likely to be women’s refuges. Women’s Aid NI, who run 12 refuges across the country, warn that since they’re already experiencing high occupancy rates, cuts will mean fewer beds for women in need. Austerity causes increases in domestic violence, and economic hardship hastens relationship breakdowns. With nowhere to go, one volunteer told me, women simply won’t go. The most dangerous point in a violent, abusive relationship occurs when women try to leave - if they can’t leave, or can’t be set up in a permanent, safe home, women will be faced with no option but to return, and meet the danger and reprisals head on. 

Ultimately, the cuts in Northern Ireland do not take place from a standing start. While the rest of the United Kingdom has for two years experienced unprecedented cuts and policing of the welfare system, with attendant spikes in poverty and inequality, Northern Ireland has not. Logic would dictate that Northern Ireland should therefore be in a far better position, and ready to weather the coming cuts. In reality, austerity has shaken an already fragile economy, still dealing with the social and psychological fallout from the Troubles, and made even the poorest, often women, even poorer. The welfare cuts look set to further impoverish women, in an entirely predictable way.

This is the third in a series of articles from around the UK by Dawn Foster in the run up to the election, 7 May.

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