It’s time to make the economy work for everyone.
This guest blog is written by Ruth Boyle. Ruth is policy and parliamentary manager with Close the Gap, Scotland’s women and labour market expert. Close the Gap works with employers, policymakers, trade unions, employees, and sectoral bodies to encourage and enable positive action to address causes of women’s inequality at work.
The impact of rising prices has not been felt equally. As a result of women’s economic inequality, women are being disproportionately impacted by the cost of living crisis. This is particularly true for specific groups of women who were already more likely to be experiencing financial precarity, including single mothers. The Living Without a Lifeline report by OPFS found 98% of participants were feeling the impact of rising costs, either significantly or to some extent. According to the report, almost two-thirds (65%) of single parents are in paid work, but work is not always a route out of poverty. 56% of single parents in paid work responding to the OPFS survey said they were finding it extremely difficult to afford, or could no longer afford, electricity. 40% said the same about food.
Women’s inequality in the labour market is a key reason they are being hardest hit by the crisis. Women, particularly single mothers, are more likely to be in low-paid, part-time and insecure work. As a result, women are more likely to be in debt and have lower levels of savings and wealth than men.
It has been claimed that people should merely increase their working hours and earnings to counter the rising cost of living. However, this doesn’t take into account the realities of women’s lives. Women’s propensity to be primary caregivers and single parents continues to shape the way they engage with the labour market.
At present, childcare provision often determines whether women have a job, what hours they work, and the amount of pay they get. Single mothers moving from part-time to full-time work will also see very limited financial returns as a result of additional childcare costs and declining Universal Credit payments as earnings rise.
The introduction of 1140 hours of funded childcare is a positive development in the provision of affordable childcare in Scotland. However, research by Scottish Women’s Budget Group has shown that there is insufficient flexibility around how parents can access these hours. This means that parents are struggling to access these funded hours in a manner that allows them to enter paid work or increase their hours.
1140 hours only amounts to the hours of the school day and has not negated the need for expensive top-up childcare. For many families, childcare costs remain more than their rent or mortgage. The OPFS Living without a lifeline report shows that one in five single parents said they could no longer afford childcare at all. This figure is only likely to get worse as costs continue to rise and we enter the winter months. As childcare is critical to enabling single mothers to enter paid work, childcare costs becoming increasingly unaffordable is likely to threaten the ability of these parents to maintain employment in the longer term.
Alongside Child Poverty Action Group and others, Close the Gap and One Parent Families Scotland have called for a universal funded entitlement of 50 hours per week for children aged 6 months and above that is free at the point of use for all families. This would dismantle one of the gendered barriers women experience in entering the labour market or increasing their working hours, enabling women to work full-time should they need or want to.
This should form part of wider action to redesign our economy to make sure it works for everyone, including extending coverage of the real living wage to female-dominated sectors; delivering fair work for women; tackling the undervaluation of women’s work; and improving access to high-quality flexible working.
One Parent Families Scotland’s research again underscores the importance of a gendered response to the cost of living crisis. Without mitigating action, a consequence of the ongoing crisis will be a rising tide of poverty for single parents. This would further entrench gender inequality and make it increasingly difficult for Scotland to meet our child poverty targets.
We need urgent action to get cash into women’s pockets to prevent them falling into further and deeper poverty. But we also need longer-term action to dismantle those structural inequalities which make women more vulnerable to poverty and financial insecurity in the first place.