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Women Carry The Burden Of Poverty - We Should End That Injustice

05/12/2016 16:30 GMT | Updated 07/12/2016 08:28 GMT

We hear a lot about the injustices woman face in modern Britain, not least in the form of the gender pay gap. An IFS report earlier this year captured the spotlight as it spelled it out in cold, hard statistics how the pay gap between men and women grows after having children, leading to stalled career progression.

But a story less often told is how women at the bottom end of the labour market are carrying the heavier burden of poverty in our society. Figures released by JRF as part of the BBC's 100 Women series highlight this reality. A fifth of women - around 5.1million - live in poverty in the UK, compared to 4.4million men.

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Clearly, poverty whatever your gender is a bad thing. But why are women at greater risk of poverty, and what impact does this have?

Low Pay

More women than ever before are in work - around seven in ten, which is a record high. However, women are still much more likely to be low paid - 25% of working women are low paid (3.5million), compared to 16% of men (2.2million). 61% of all low paid workers are women.

Women are still disproportionately likely to work in low paid sectors, such as caring, leisure, retail and hospitality. This trend is continuing even among younger women; sixty-one per cent of female apprentices work in five sectors that are typically female dominated and low paid.

While more than 90% of construction and engineering apprentices are male, more than 90% of dental nursing and beauty therapy apprentices are female. It seems the prospects of being in poverty are being set in train for women when they leave school.

Caring responsibilities

Mothers and fathers in many families share parenting duties far more than in previous generations. However, women are still disproportionately the ones who take time out of the labour market when their children are young and often stay in part time work for many years after that. The effect of this is clear from the pattern of the pay gap between men and women.

When you look only at young, full time workers who haven't had children, men are paid on average 6% more than women. However, this gap grows when women have children and keeps growing until the child is about twelve; by then men are earning around a third more than women.

The tension between paid work and caring for children is most acute for lone parents - who are still overwhelmingly women. The break-up of a family often causes emotional and financial hardship for mothers, fathers and children. The vast majority of lone parents (who have the children living with them) are women and 44% live in poverty (after housing costs are taken into account). Men seem to recover economically from breakups faster than women, although non-resident fathers also have a higher poverty rate than fathers in couples - 40% vs 26%.

Many of these problems are long-term and deep-seated, though there are things that can be done. JRF's comprehensive strategy to solve poverty in the UK highlights four main ways to end this injustice.

  1. Employers can help by offering more and better paid part time and flexible jobs. Nearly a million parents have the qualifications to earn a higher wage but are out of work or working below their skill level because they need flexibility. The National Living Wage has disproportionately helped women, though on its own does not give families enough for a decent standard of living.
  2. The Government can help by using Universal Credit more to reduce poverty, and raising benefits in line with inflation. The principles behind Universal Credit are good for both women and men, however the cuts to it have greatly reduced its potential positive impact. A lone parent working full time on the minimum wage in 2015 could move out of poverty; by 2020 a lone parent on the National Living Wage will have a lower income and is likely to stay in poverty even when working full time. Families where the adults cannot work full time or are out of work will also see their incomes hit. Meanwhile, most working age benefits have been frozen for four years; but inflation is expected to be over 2% for the next few years. This freeze should be lifted.
  3. Families can help themselves by sharing parenting and trying to enable both parents to stay in work where they can. Of course, there is no one way of organising family life and parents need to make the choices that are right for them. There is good evidence, however, that it can help children's prospects if both parents are able to spend time with them and bond when young, and stay involved in their lives as they grow older. Likewise, where both parents stay in touch with the labour market rather than having very long periods out of work their pay and job prospects are better - and they can build up more security for later life.
  4. Schools and local authorities can help by providing excellent careers advice and access to high value apprenticeships. Young women need to be empowered to choose a wider range of careers and to break out of traditional low paid sectors.

Poverty is a scourge on our society, costing the UK £78billion every year. The impacts of poverty affect us all, but hit women hardest. What these bleak economic facts don't portray is the burden women carry as result. Evidence shows that women often bear more of the daily stress of trying to make an inadequate income stretch far enough. Parents make daily sacrifices to protect their children from the effects of poverty, but the evidence suggests that it is most often the women who juggle the family budget, and women who go without to be able to meet their children's needs. Britain should be a country where everyone can live a decent and secure life. Sadly, for over five million women, that isn't the case. It's time we ended the injustice to make the country work for everyone.