No, Universal Credit is not ‘gender neutral’

Date Posted: Monday 2nd December 2019

Any reform of the social security system should be subject to a meaningful equality impact assessment.

#GE2019WomenandGirlsElectionSocial Security

This article was originally in The Big Issue.

New data from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) this week confirms what those trying to live on Universal Credit already know: £73 per week just isn’t enough. It’s now just 12.5 per cent of average incomes. With demand for food from food banks going up and increased poverty linked to rising infant mortality, social security should be a key issue at this election. So far, the Conservatives have promised that the benefit freeze will end as planned next year, the Lib Dems have suggested they might end sanctions altogether and Labour has promised to rethink Universal Credit entirely. But there has been less attention paid to the parties’ plans for social security than their tax plans so far in the campaign.

Social security matters. DWP figures confirm that 45% of single parent families are living in poverty. 90% of these families are led by women. This alone shows that Universal Credit is not ‘gender neutral.’ Women still own less, earn less and take on more unpaid care work. This means they are more likely to be primary carers and have less time for paid work. As a result, women are more likely to be poor and more likely to rely on social security for a larger part of their income. So when social security cuts bite, women feel it most.

Then there’s the fact that women are at higher risk of domestic abuse and violence in the household and poverty can trap them in these desperate circumstances. And it’s not just the amount of money which can stop women fleeing abusive partners but the rules of the system: Universal Credit is paid into one bank account once a month. This makes it easier for one person in the household to control the finances and increases the risk of financial and other forms of domestic abuse. Recipients can apply for what’s called ‘Alternative Payment Arrangements’ – including having Universal Credit split between them; but this requires them to disclose abuse, which can often make it worse. Women’s rights organisations have long been calling for the government to implement separate payments of Universal Credit more widely.

When it comes to the gendered impact of Universal Credit, however, this is just the tip of the iceberg: there is also the ‘two child limit’, which means that the amount of Universal Credit a household receives is capped at two children. So, whether you are trying to feed and clothe two children or four children, you receive the same amount per week. One of the few exceptions is in the case of rape; but again this requires women to report, and only applies if the woman is not living with her rapist, again providing no help for women in violent relationships. Women’s Budget Group research finds the two child limit has a disproportionate impact on Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) families because they are statistically more likely to have three or more children. This is all if you can claim social security at all, which many migrant women without recourse to public funds cannot.

The cruel sanctions and conditionality system is dehumanising and degrading for everyone claiming Universal Credit but it has a gendered impact also: on the one hand, job-seeking requirements in principle only allow one parent to have more flexible arrangements, which reproduces gender norms leading to more stringent requirements for (usually) fathers and threatens to further burden mothers with unpaid care work. At the same time, both parents are required to be actively seeking employment: parents of 3- and 4-year-olds are expected to be available for (some) work and actively seeking it. Parents of 2- and 1-year-olds are required to attend work-focused interviews and in the longer term start preparing for paid work. This brings a large group of women in particular into conditionality for the first time and presents difficulties for lone parents who may struggle with combining job-seeking and looking after their children.

Whether through design or accident, Universal Credit is disproportionately affecting the poorest women, especially BME women. Meanwhile, social security reform for disabled people has been detrimental to their survival, especially for women who make up the majority of disabled people as well as those caring for disabled people.

Social security is a fundamental element of a caring economy that promotes well-being for all, decent living standards and opportunities for everyone to fulfil their potential in life. Whoever ends up in government after 12 December 2019, the Women’s Budget Group encourages them to acknowledge social security as a highly gendered area of policy because it affects women differently and disproportionately. Any reform of the social security system should be subject to a meaningful equality impact assessment taking account of women’s responsibility for care and their increased risk of violence at home.