Watching the Channel 4 Dispatches’ Growing Up Poor, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a historical piece about child poverty in Victorian times. The documentary revealed the desperate reality confronting families up and down the country. This is Britain after a decade of public service cuts and social security reform: a country where food bank use and homelessness are at record highs and many children are going to school too hungry to concentrate.
For the most part children are poor because their mothers are poor. In 2019, Department of Work and Pension data shows the 45% of single parents are living in poverty. When 90% of single parents are women, poverty is far from “gender neutral”. So, if we want to put an end to child poverty, we need to think about the causes of women’s poverty.
Over the last few years research by the Women’s Budget Group with the race equality organisation, the Runnymede Trust, has shown how cuts to public services and social security reform have hit women especially Black Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) women and disabled women harder, plunging many into poverty.
There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, women are far more likely than men to be responsible for unpaid care work. This means they have less time for paid work, so are more likely to be poor and more likely to rely on benefits. So, the benefit freeze, two child limit and move to universal credit with its five-week wait have all hit women harder. And when public services like health, social care and childcare are cut, women are more likely to have to do more unpaid work to fill the gap, leaving them with even less time to earn money.
Secondly, one in four women in the UK still experiences domestic abuse. Poverty traps women in abusive relationships and even when women can afford to leave violence at home, the safety net designed to catch them has been all but erased.
This was Courtney’s story from last night: at eight years old she’s watched her mum leave an abusive partner only to find that the social security system let her down when she needed it most. At the point when Courtney and her family should have been looking forward to a new life, free from abuse, they found themselves in a freezing home and just £5 a day to live off for the five weeks it takes to receive the first Universal Credit payment.
This is a story women’s organisations hear time and time again: our social security system, far from providing a safety net, is trapping women in abusive relationships. Benefits have been frozen, housing benefit no longer covers actual rents, universal credit takes at least five weeks to come and support for children is capped at two children. If Courtney had another brother or sister, her mum would still receive the same amount of money as she does now despite having a whole other mouth to feed.
Even in poor couples, poverty hits women harder. Women are more likely to be responsible for household budgeting, so manage the stress of deciding whether to keep children warm or fed. And women are what the Women’s Budget Group has described as “the shock absorbers of poverty” – going without food or warmth themselves to make sure that their children are fed.
Last night, while Growing Up Poor was broadcast it was sub-zero temperatures in many parts of the UK. While many were inside watching the documentary, others were Christmas shopping on-line and others still were returning home from canvassing for their local candidate ahead of next week’s General Election. It was deliberately broadcast at a pivotal moment for the country: poverty is political so when voters go to the polls next week, will they keep Courtney and her family in mind?
All the main parties are promising to make changes to the social security system. The Conservatives have promised that they will ‘will continue our efforts through the tax and benefits system to reduce poverty, including child poverty’, but remain committed to Universal Credit. The Liberal Democrats commit to reducing the wait for the first payment from five weeks to five days, removing the two- child limit and the benefits cap and increasing local housing allowance to the level of actual local rents. Labour are pledging to eventually scrap Universal Credit altogether and immediately end the five week wait, two child limit and benefit freeze. What they will replace UC with however is unclear.
Whoever wins the next election, need to ensure that the social security system puts women’s unpaid care responsibilities and increased risk of violence at its core. Poverty is not inevitable. We can do things differently and design a new social security system to protect all families from risk and make documentaries like Growing Up Poor a thing of the Victorian past.
Jenna Norman is public affairs officer at the Women’s Budget Group.