Cost-of-living crisis: Women at the sharp end

Photo: William Fortunato/CC

How will we afford to keep the heating on? This is a question facing thousands of working-class households this winter, even after the British Tory government’s colossal energy bosses bailout, writes Bea Gardner.

The poorer you are, the hardest you are hit by rising costs. Real inflation is far higher for the working class than it is for those with bigger incomes because we spend a much higher proportion of our income on energy, rent, and food.

Once again, the capitalist crisis exposes the inequalities of the system.

For women, the cost-of-living crisis is felt especially sharply. Almost half of women are finding financial pressures so stressful that they are losing sleep, according to a survey by Mintago in the UK.

Women are more likely to be the person in the household opening the bills, and counting the pennies at the checkout. Pervasive gender discrimination means women continue to be paid less than men, including for equivalent work.

The disproportionate impact of rising costs faced by women will drive increasing numbers to fight back. Tens of thousands have already joined the growing strike wave, and millions more could do too as public sector unions – which have a majority female membership – vote to strike over pay.

Because of the pre-existing gender inequality that is reproduced by capitalist societies, women typically have lower incomes and greater responsibilities for managing household finances.

Women are more likely to be in some of the lowest-paid jobs because work that is traditionally viewed as ‘women’s work’, such as care work and cleaning, is not valued in the capitalist system.

Research by the living wage foundation found over 60% of jobs below the living wage was carried out by women. 35% of low-paid women already regularly skip meals to save costs.

For the millions of women in receipt of Universal Credit, their income is further squeezed by the real-term cut this winter. Claimants have to wait until April for a still-below inflation rise. What is needed is an immediate uplift, with future rises linked to the current cost of living.

Women carry out a greater share of unpaid work in the home, including caring responsibilities, restricting the amount of paid work we can do. And making us more vulnerable to the Tories attacks on part-time workers’ benefits.

This combination of factors; women being more likely to work part-time, in lower-paid jobs plus taking time out of work to support the family means the income gap between men and women in retirement is around 38% – a difference of around £7,500 a year. A quarter of women pensioners live in poverty.

Women in receipt of maternity payments are having to rapidly recalculate to see if it is possible to stretch measly maternity pay to cover the rising costs, with some returning earlier to work than planned. The average period of maternity leave is 39 weeks. For those coming to the end of this, RPI inflation was 6.3% when their baby was born and three times less than this when their baby was conceived!

Yet extortionate childcare costs – the second highest in the world – mean there is no guarantee a return to work will ease financial pressures either. The largely privatised childcare sector doesn’t cater for shift working, night-time, or weekend work and many businesses no longer provide any in-house creche facilities. The need for free, quality, universal childcare is more acute than ever.

Other research reveals the strain financial pressures are taking on relationships. 55% of couples in one survey stated their relationship is already ‘on the rocks’ as a direct result of the cost-of-living crisis.

Financial pressure

However, being single brings even greater financial pressure. According to the charity Shelter, in the last ten years, the number of women in England who are homeless and living in temporary accommodation has increased by 88%. Many of these are women fleeing domestic abuse and are unable to secure a refuge place due to chronic underfunding and cuts to these services.

Rising costs could cost women their lives. Women’s Aid estimates three in four women that have financial ties with an abusive partner have found financial costs have prevented them from leaving or made it harder for them to leave.

The cost-of-living crisis has intensified the existing financial pressures facing working-class, and increasing numbers of middle-class women.

A decade of capitalist austerity introduced after the 2008 financial crisis disproportionately impacted women. Services women relied on for support, and which overwhelmingly employed women, were closed.

Schemes like the crisis support grant, which previously provided some relief, were either abolished or passed on to cash-strapped councils to manage at a reduced level.

Rather than put up resistance to Tory austerity, Labour councils implemented it on their behalf.

Faced with the crisis today, councils prepared to use their borrowing capacity and reserves could carry out measures to support households through the cost-of-living crisis now.

Setting such legal, no-cuts budgets is a policy backed by the trade union Unite.

Local councils could use their powers to support families with a range of measures, including help with food and energy costs. They could also ensure a pay raise for council workers and provide subsidised childcare.

The Tories have already shown that under pressure they will fork out billions to save the energy companies, and dish out tax cuts to the rich. Faced with a mass campaign they could be forced to cough up to fund local council services.

But we urgently need a political alternative – a new mass working-class party that is prepared to take a fighting stance to end the cost-of-living crisis. Potentially millions of workers could take strike action this winter, the majority of them women. If a section of the trade union leaders at the forefront of these struggles launched a new formation to challenge at a general election, it could win seats and fight for socialist policies that would transform working-class women’s lives.

To permanently end poverty, inequality, and sexism, we need to end the capitalist system that perpetuates it. That means fighting for the socialist transformation of society. It’s the working class, including working-class women, who have the power to bring about that change.

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October 2022