Recession affects men and women, but not always in the same ways or to the same degree. Often, the effects of recession on women as a class are more severe than the effects of recession on men. When governments enact policies which fail to take account of how the ‘pain’ of economic collapse is distributed across gender lines, they may reinforce rather than alleviate these specific burdens. ‘We’ are not in this ‘together’. Women, by and large, are in deeper. These aren’t especially controversial claims. Some of the supporting arguments I might make I made last year here and others are well outlined in the NWCI’s 2011 Pre-Budget Submission. For more in-depth research on gender and the global recession see here, here and see these papers from the Feminist Open Forum conference in March. Before I go any further I want to answer a question that some of you may already be thinking of: ‘What about men?’
For some commentators - such as Catherine Bennett in the Observer - the suggestion that we should pay attention to the gendered nature of budgetary policy inevitably entails essentialist gender separatism. This is another version of the ‘We’re all in this together‘ myth. It is not only misleading bluster but aims to distract us from proper analysis of the current social and political settlement (on which see Doreen Massey here). Is mine the sort of argument made by middle class women who suffer from an empathy deficit which renders them incapable of recognising the genuine suffering of men and who desperately want to claim a moral high ground which properly belongs to the poor? This is the kind of accusation to which feminism has struggled to respond for a long time. I think that Wendy Brown provides one of the better answers here in her piece ‘Finding the Man in the State’, which appears as a chapter in States of Injury. We can, she says, identify modes by which state power is leveraged against women which without making any particular claims about what it is to be ‘a woman’ or about what ‘women’, rich or poor, inevitably have in common. In addition, we can identify modes by which state power is leveraged against women without equating women’s exclusion with male evil; without inevitably blaming all men for it and without denying that women’s maltreatment at the hands of the state sometimes occurs in harness with the oppression of some men. (As a side note, isn’t it obvious that cuts to child benefit, one parent allowance, unemployment assistance etc affects women’s male partners and their sons too?). Furthermore we can examine the gendered deployment of state power without pretending that patriarchy is the only explanation for oppression. We can concentrate on gender for a moment, without precluding later examination of class, migrant status, disability, age and so on. We can and should aim for a complex analysis of what is going on in Ireland at the moment. So when I talk about how this budget affects women, I want to provide one of what I envisage as many interwoven lines of critique as we struggle to make sense of what is happening to us. This budget – make no bones about it – hits women hard.
- Paid work and unemployment are gendered. Cuts to the dole will affect women badly. Women’s jobs tend to fall away in recession ( the ‘reserve army’ theory of women’s labour). This happens, in particular, because large numbers of women work in the public sector, and so are affected by cuts to jobs and wages. In recession women leave the public workforce and are expected to take up – through care in the family – the slack produced by reductions in public services e.g. in provision of healthcare or support for the disabled.
- Welfare is gendered. The cuts to child benefit, the reduction in the minimum wage and the reduction in the one parent allowance all have an obvious effect on women. Moreover, we have to be alive to the ways in which such payments are presented in the media. As Liam and Deirdre mentioned in our liveblog, the image of the ‘undeserving’ working poor who have yet to take their fair share of the pain is resurfacing in public debate. A good place to start further reading on welfare payments as a mechanism of social control is Dorothy Chunn and Shelley Gavigan’s edited collection The Legal Tender of Gender. I also learned a lot from the contributors to a recent ‘welfare’ workshop here at Kent Law School.
- Tax is gendered. I can’t put it better than Sylvia Walby does here: “Tax is gendered since men pay more tax than women because they earn more and since women receive more public services and benefits from the state because they contribute more unpaid care-work than men. Public services, such as health, are disproportionately used by women, employ women, and are politically supported by women.”
- Finance is gendered. The ‘public’ issues of labour, welfare and tax intersect with gender disparities in the regulation of private finance (See for instance this Irish research, comissioned by Open, which demonstrates that female-headed single parent families are excluded from mainstream lending and pay over the odds for credit. See further here on financial exclusion and here on women’s financial literacy. More generally, see Sylvia Walby’s work on the gendering of financial architecture). Public cuts mean lower income, lower income means increased borrowing at punitive rates.
- Anti-equality opportunism is gendered. This budget, as Liam outlined saw further cuts to the budgets of human rights bodies. This government is using the recession as an excuse to undermine our rights protection framework.
What can be done about it? Ever stronger voices are suggesting, as Sylvia Walby argues here, that this financial crisis represents a tipping point for national political and economic systems as the majority begin to recognise the urgent need to rethink democracy, tax and financial regulation. Certainly, Irish protest movements are finally stirring to life (Politico.ie’s fantastic BudgetJam liveblog is keeping a running tally of petitions, protests and campaigns).
What I wonder now, is whether lawyers can be of much more use? Darren has explained the limitations of a challenge to the IMF declaration. Scope for a Fawcett society-style challenge to the budget seems limited at Irish law given our longstanding judicial reluctance interfere in economic policy. Readers, where might we go from here?