The ideological dangers of austerity – and why women are bearing the brunt of it

Date Posted: Monday 17th February 2020

Blog by Stephanie Gillibrand for our ECN 'Women and the Economy' series

AusterityEarly-Career Networkgender equalityWomen and the Economy

In this new instalment of our Women and the Economy blog series, Stephanie Gillibrand analyses the framing of austerity policies in the UK since 2010 and why women have borne the brunt of them.

The past 10 years have seen an aggressive and continuous period of austerity that has been felt disproportionately by women, single-parents and low-income families more broadly. Such a scenario is created by the ideational and ideological devaluation of women in the economy. Using a feminist-moral economy perspective, my research traced the genealogy of the post-crisis austerity agenda in the UK. It assessed the key drivers of austerity, from a feminist political economy standpoint and assessed how notions of moral obligation and social norms were apparent within the rationale and implementation of austerity policy since 2010.

Fostered by both policymakers and the media, narratives surrounding welfare recipients, including dichotomies of ‘working/workless’, ‘strivers/scroungers’, established a public consensus that directly translates into the rationale behind austerity policy. The post-crisis austerity programme is mobilised around normative principles, including notions of fairness and personal responsibility. These are fostered as easily ‘sellable’, seemingly neutral, apolitical concepts that seek to establish public support for austerity policies. In this way, austerity policies are legitimated in ways that ensure they are difficult to scrutinise because they seem to be rooted in common sense and public consensus. The problem lies in that this fundamental premise is set against a series of strongly held yet incorrect beliefs about the welfare system and its recipients, and against a backdrop of questionable economic rationale, concerning the deficit and economic growth. As a consequence, both the responsibility for and the solutions to the financial crisis are placed on the households and other key sites facing cuts, including the health, education and social care sector.

Feminist political economy perspectives highlight how cuts to the household, local authorities, schools and hospitals interact in ways that induce a greater burden on the household, financially and physically. When public services are cut women’s unpaid labour in the household steps in to ‘bridge the gap’ left by cuts in these areas, as women take-up a larger role in the caring responsibilities to children and other family members.

This also holds a reflexive dynamic. Women make up the majority of public sector workers, and in the education sector, 75% of teachers and 90% of support staff are women. As the household faces increased financial pressures in fulfilling its duties relating to the care and maintenance of children, schools and educational institutions have to ‘pick up the tab’. A poll conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders found that 90% of headteachers surveyed bought clothes for pupils, and 47% have washed clothes for pupils as households have not had the financial capacity for heating or hot water. This, as well as cuts to schools’ funding (down by 8% since 2009 in real terms and accounting for a rise in pupils), has had a direct impact on the capacity of schools to fulfil their role as educators. Earlier in 2019, it was reported that more than 200 schools were cutting their school weeks’ short due to financial constraints. This incurs a reciprocal effect on both the household and those employed by schools, who lose out on income. As a consequence of this, cuts to school days creates an additional burden on households, and in particular single-parents.

With the election of another Conservative government, it is imperative that the new Government takes stock of the failures of the previous government in addressing the biggest issues facing welfare policy, particularly in relation to the disproportionate affects felt by the most marginalised groups. Most importantly, the Government needs to ensure that the impact assessments that are undertaken on each policy are conducted in a way that accurately captures policies’ impacts, in particular gendered impacts. The impact assessments of both the two-child limit and the household benefit cap fail to adequately and meaningfully assess the intersectional impacts of these policies because they do not take into account impacts from other welfare policies including the benefits freeze, and the wider context of cuts to local authorities and schools. Impact assessments need to take greater consideration of the strains placed on other budgets in light of welfare policy decisions, in particular local authorities and schools. For example, the intersection of the household benefit cap and two-child cap result in greater use of discretionary housing payments, administered by local authorities. When cuts of public services and welfare are undertaken, the knock-on consequences often result in the displacement of fiscal burden to other sites, and are thereby a false economy.  Rather than displacing fiscal crises onto households and public sector bodies, the Government must step-up in respect to the very real consequences of austerity.

Stephanie Gillibrand is a Research Associate at The University of Manchester