Two weeks ago I was privileged to speak about maternal poverty to fifty front line workers and policy officers at an event organised by the North East Child Poverty Commission and Sunderland City Council.
Most of what I said was based on two research projects, one conducted in 2008 and one in 2010. Both these projects highlighted inequalities in the way that money is shared out within households, with children tending to get the greatest share of resources and their mothers the least. As well as getting the smallest share of the money in the household, mothers are usually their family’s financial manager, and when money is short this puts huge pressure on them to balance the weekly household budget. With this pressure come feelings of guilt, stress and anxiety. When I wrote up my projects in 2010, I concluded them both by arguing that it was vital to boost family incomes, particularly through increasing maternal employment. In fact, the opposite has since happened; household incomes have gone down in real terms and women’s unemployment has increased.
Let’s consider some of the ways that family incomes are currently under pressure. Working Tax Credits have been effectively frozen since 2010, as has Child Benefit. The withdrawal rate for all tax credits went up from 39% in 2010-11 to 41% in 2011-12, so if you are working and claiming tax credits, more of your tax credits now go back to the Treasury. Since 2010, the Retail Prices Index has shown that the cost of living has risen by close to five per cent a year. As a result of all these changes a typical family with two children and one full time worker on a low wage are about £30 a week worse off in real terms; an effective income cut of about 8% since March 2010.
And if that wasn’t enough, there is also an increasing problem with women’s unemployment. The unemployment rate for women is the highest it has been for twenty five years. Things are particularly bad in the public sector, which employs more than its share of part time, low income women: of the 710,000 jobs predicted to have been lost in the public sector between 2010 and 2015, 65% were, or are being, done by women.
Calculations made by the House of Commons Library have shown that the impact of the cuts on women is stark; of £8bn of annual savings and extra taxes planned between 2010 and 2015, £6bn will come from women. The Prime Minister has claimed that when it comes to balancing the national budget the impact will be shared fairly between all sections of society. But it is very clear that women are carrying more of the burden of cuts than men, mothers are carrying more of the burden than other women, and low income mothers are carrying more of the burden than other mothers. To put it bluntly, low income mothers are among the greatest victims of the Age of Austerity. It is astounding that this injustice has received so little public comment, but as usual low income mothers are largely invisible in political discourse, except as objects of blame.
It came as no surprise to me when participants at the Maternal Poverty event told me that my research was only describing the tip of the iceberg, and that they were encountering heart-breaking cases of maternal hardship every day. Recent research by Netmums involving two thousand mothers has revealed a dire picture, with one in five mums regularly skipping meals in order to feed their children, and one in six seeking treatment for stress related illness caused by financial worries.
Things are much worse for low income mothers than they were in 2010, and they are getting worse every year. We should all be angry about this. Mothers have enough to think about when raising their children without having to think about where every penny is coming from. They deserve better from our society. Naomi Stadlen has written that ‘the whole of civilisation depends on the work of mothers’, yet it seems we expect very many of them to do this work without the resources they need. All of us who value mothers and mothering need to commit ourselves to fighting maternal poverty and to fighting the cuts that increase it. It is everyone’s responsibility.
You can see the presentation that was delivered at the event here