Gender and poverty: what should be done?

Looking at poverty through a gender lens should make a difference to the way relevant policies are designed, implemented and analysed, according to a new evidence review.  Fran Bennett, one of the report’s authors, discusses the issues.

Picture Credit: Daniele Zanni

The links between gender and poverty have been a frequent topic of debate recently in the international development field. These issues are not discussed as much in the UK context.

But the texture of poverty – as well as its causes, and potential escape routes from it – are fundamentally affected by gender, in the UK as elsewhere. And this has implications not just for how we look at poverty, but also for how we design and assess policies intended to combat it.

Instead of just considering a household at one point in time, we should consider individuals over their life course as well. And instead of just looking at the amounts of resources involved, we should examine the effects they might have on gender roles and relationships, both in private and in public.

The review defined poverty as a lack of material resources with which to participate fully in society. At first glance, the links between gender and poverty seem obvious. Women have poorer labour market attachment, tend to head poverty-prone households and have less ‘human capital’.

But these are characteristics of individual lives, rather than explanations. Underlying them is gender, which is not centrally about sex (biological differences), but instead about wider social structures and – crucially for this review – power relations that create unequal access to resources.

Age, ethnic origin, disability and other divisions must clearly also be taken into account.

Policies in the UK have not explicitly been aimed at tackling gendered poverty. But the researchers concluded that looking at poverty through a gender lens suggests two broad lessons for shaping anti-poverty policies and examining their effects.

The first is to go beyond the snapshot of the household at one point in time, to consider the trajectory of the individual over the life-course. It is well-known that resources may not be shared fairly within the household, and that this can result in hidden poverty for some individuals, or deeper poverty for others.

So the review found that assured access to an adequate independent income for individuals is key. Indeed, it can be argued that on one interpretation, individuals without control over an adequate independent income can be seen as living in poverty at that time.

Above and beyond this, however, if we are considering the risk of future poverty, the extent of financial dependence of individuals within the household is also relevant. And the review argued that this risk is clearly gendered, because of the division of labour between women and men, and the differential rewards for paid and unpaid work.

What implications does this have for policy? It means, firstly, changing the unit we are concerned with. In other words, ‘targeting’ cannot be seen as successful if (as is usual) it focuses only on reaching households in poverty.

Methods must be found to ensure the welfare of all individuals within the household – and as far as possible, to avoid making individuals’ access to resources dependent on the household in which they live. This is a challenging and complex goal to achieve in practice.

But as a starting point we should recognise that the unit which policies are directed at is a real issue. And analysis of the impact of anti-poverty (and other) policies should aim to consider their impact on individuals over the life-course, rather than just on households in the here and now.

To give just one example: increases in the national minimum wage are often seen as an ineffective anti-poverty policy instrument, because many of those on low pay are ‘second earners’ in a household that is not as a whole living below the poverty line. But policy makers could be reminded that in the longer term these low-paid individuals may become lone parents, or in old age could find they had not contributed enough to a pension to keep themselves out of poverty.

Secondly, looking at poverty through a gender lens should involve considering not just the amount of material resources redistributed in any policy initiative but also how they are labelled, what they are meant to achieve, and (within couples) who receives them. This is because all these facets of resources have gender implications.

So analysis of the implications of anti-poverty (and other) policies should examine their effects on the amount of resources redistributed between women and men, and how many of each sex are affected. But it should also consider their impact on gender roles and relationships; on caring responsibilities; and on inequalities within the household – both now and in the future.

To give one example: access to resources which relieve poverty in the short term, but which act to make gender roles within couples more rigid rather than more flexible, may not work against gendered patterns of poverty in the longer term.

And the policy of giving the label of ‘lead carer’ to one partner in a couple in the new universal credit scheme, with consequent easing of the new stricter conditionality regime for that partner, whilst at the same time not allowing the other partner any leeway for caring within their job search conditions, should also be examined with this in mind.

Unfortunately, although the principles above were cited by the current government in one of its own recent equality impact assessments, it has not to date taken their implications on board in its own policy thinking. The evidence review argues that it is high time this was done, in order to develop more gender sensitive anti-poverty policies to help sever the social and structural links between gender and poverty.

This piece is by Fran Bennett, who takes responsibility for any errors. It is based on a review written by Fran Bennett and Mary Daly:  Poverty Through a Gender Lens: Evidence and policy review on gender and poverty (2014) – working paper supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Fran Bennett is Senior Research and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, and is a member of the Women’s Budget Group.

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