Is the Cost of Living Crisis a Feminist Issue?

Amelia Schlezinger discusses how the nation’s cost of living crisis is not only detrimental to our country as a whole, but creates rapidly growing threats to female and minority communities.

The scale of the cost-of-living crisis cannot be overstated. The drastic spike in the price of basic necessities, such as food and energy has no doubt affected the majority of the population, and will continue to, as inflation is predicted to hit 13% by the end of the year. However, with many economic crises throughout history, it is clear that women have been hit hardest, due to the inequality we already face under patriarchal capitalism. Increasingly, women find themselves on the margins, and are facing difficult decisions, such as whether to feed themselves or their children, to stay afloat. 

The gender pay gap has been a concern for feminists since the Second Wave. It has not, however, yet been eradicated, with on average, young women taking home around a fifth less than their male counterparts. One reason for this pay disparity includes the fact that women usually hold more caring responsibilities such as looking after children, and are thus more likely to be involved in part-time work (38% of women work part-time compared to 13% of men), in order to balance work alongside their duties in the home. Patriarchal expectations govern women’s priorities, and more often than not, they’re careers, and incomes, come second.

Furthermore, the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, which shows that in a range of sectors low paid roles are predominantly undertaken by women. As well as this, a fifth of women in work are paid below the real Living Wage compared to 14% of men, thus jobs held by women account for 60% of all jobs paid below the Living Wage. Our economy is already skewed to disadvantage women. Capitalism is maintained by the unpaid labour of women in the home; with the cultural expectations of women to be carers above all else, and devaluing the work we so often undertake. The cost-of-living crisis, then, will only compound this injustice. 

And even when women do find themselves in the same job position as men, this does not equate the same rate of pay. According to the 2017 American Community Survey, there is no occupational category in which women out-earn men. As well as this, from December 2020-2021, men’s earnings while working full time increased by 5.12%, while women’s increased by only 2.53%. Furthermore, the average weekly earnings for men between December 2020-21 was £596.70, whilst women’s average came to only £420.80. Hence, as well as women finding themselves in lower paid sectors, even when women do make it to higher paid roles, this does not on average mean they are paid the same.

No wonder then, that 52% of young women are ‘filled with dread’ when they think about their household finances, and feel that they are ‘stuck in the mud’, unable to maintain a standard of living as they are fighting to survive (Young Women’s Trust). Women will also be less likely to strive for higher positions within work due to this bias within the workplace, in which women know that they will be less likely to obtain these positions, and when they do, will be paid less than their male colleagues. This disparity has profound effects on women’s mental health, increasing levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Studies have proven that there is a link between women’s experience of discrimination and mental health symptoms: in comparison to men, women are twice as likely to have generalised anxiety disorder and to develop depression during their lifetime. This mental health crisis will only increase during these tough times.

Women, as a homogenous group, are thus at a disadvantage in this crisis. But within the category ‘woman’, vast inequalities persist along race and class lines. Women of Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, as well as those who are disabled, will be further impacted by the crisis as they are already affected by structural obstacles. The Runnymede Trust in 2016 found that women of Black and ethnic minority backgrounds experience considerably higher rates of poverty than white women in the UK. Disabled people are also more likely to be living in poverty, as they face higher rates of unemployment and pay disparity. BME and disabled women are, then, disproportionately reliant on the welfare state for support, a welfare state which has been gradually eroded by 12 years of austerity. 

Artwork by Cerys Gadsden

In addition, single parents, of whom 90% are women, and disproportionately working class, will be at the sharp edge of the impacts of inflation. With only one source of income to support their family, which is already lowered due to the statistics referenced earlier, mothers are doing whatever they can to provide for their children, even if they must go hungry. It is recorded that a quarter of young mothers skip meals every day to keep within the family budget. Joeli Brearley, the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said that her survey with 27,000 parents found that three-quarters of single parents say that their childcare costs the same or more than their rent or their mortgage. Many women have turned to selling sex to cope with the cost of living crisis in order to pay the bills.This has been seen in the number of calls to the English Collective of Prostitutes, an organisation of sex workers, increasing by a third. With the state’s hostile legislation to sex work, the absence of unionisation, and the social stigma that accompanies selling sex, this will undoubtedly leave many women vulnerable to the threat of increased violence from both clinets and the police.

And this threat of male violence looms large in times of economic turmoil. Understanding that domestic abuse is often underpinned by financial dependence, the cost-of-living crisis will only make fleeing an abuser less likely. According to Womens Aid, 66% of survivors have said that abusers are using the cost of living crisis and concerns about finance as a way to control their victims, and justify a restriction of their access to money. And with policies of spending cuts dominating the political agenda for the last decade, funding has been eroded for women’s refuges, meaning many are being rejected when they are most desperate. .

Whilst the government has responded to the crisis through schemes such as the £200 energy ‘discount’ and the Government Energy Price Guarantee package to cap energy bills, there has been little done to address those most affected and struggling in society: women.  With the newly announced Prime Minister Rishi Sunak having a net worth estimated at £730 million, it is clear that the government does not understand the reality of the soaring costs and energy bills, and the effect this has on women. Despite the lack of adequate action from our government, which has left many feminists across the country despondant, mutual aid groups offer a sense of hope. Organisations such as The Women’s Budget Group, The Circle, Womankind Worldwide and Equality Now, are providing essential services in the Government’s place. These groups demonstrate vital feminist praxis, and strive to give those most in need the resources to survive this long winter.

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