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Guest blog: Indyref, women and poverty (Indyref Thursday #2)

By Angela O'Hagan

In the run-up to our event on 'gender equality, the referendum and beyond', we'll be publishing a weekly blog to correspond with our 'Scotland's futures' briefing papers series. This week, guest blogger Angela O'Hagan considers implications in terms of women's poverty.

Will women be poorer in a post-Referendum Scotland? Will independence or devo-max put a stop to the onward march of women’s - and men’s - poverty in Scotland?

As ever, the answers are in part up to us and the decisions we make on 18 September and the pressure we put on politicians now and after the vote, to act for change and for the alternatives that are possible.

Whatever the outcome from the independence Referendum, the choice for Scotland has to be for a system of social protection and resource allocation that recognises the different experiences of women and men, the different causes and impacts of individual and household poverty, and an approach to policy making and public spending that aims to eliminate those differences and advance women’s equality.

‘Poverty has a woman’s face’ is the long-standing short-hand that describes the different reasons for and experiences of poverty that women have across the world. In Scotland, Engender has highlighted the factors contributing to women’s enduring poverty are the combining and cumulative effects of low pay, unequal pay, tax and benefit reforms from the Westminster government that are having most impact on women and on household income, and the shrinkage of jobs and services in the public sector. Add to this mix women’s ongoing contribution as unpaid carers and the costs of childcare and other forms of care and the picture builds of women increasingly pulled in all directions ‘to make ends meet’.

Analysis from the UK Women’s Budget Group and the House of Commons Library has repeatedly told us – and governments in London and Edinburgh – that women have shouldered upwards of 75% of the impact from removal of some social security benefits and changes to the tax system. The UK government’s budget for 2014 offered tax giveaways for men - such as boosts to ISA funds and the Transferrable Tax Allowance - funded by cuts to income and services for women. Regressive and indirect taxation such as VAT, fuel discounters and energy tariffs all affect women and men differently because of women’s lower incomes and more limited spending power.

The Westminster coalition is, arguably, set on dismantling the current welfare system in what amounts to an “erosion of social protection”. The independence debate offers options and opportunities for Scotland to have a different approach to welfare and to the eradication of poverty as a permanent accompaniment to people’s lives in Scotland. Proposals for the Common Weal presented by the much loved and missed Professor Ailsa McKay argue for a welfare system in Scotland that supports people ‘to work and to participate in their society’ and not the current model of a bare minimum safety net. The recent report from the Scottish Government’s Expert Group on Welfare picks up this theme of social protection and a social security system that is a “springboard to a better life”. The forty or so recommendations from the Group are all costed and possible, assuming the political will exists to change the system for the better, and – I would argue - to put women’s equality and gender differences at its core.

We know from the Scottish Government’s own analysis that welfare reforms, spending reviews and UK Budgets are making life worse for women in Scotland. We also know that women and men have been applying for support from the Scottish Welfare Fund in pretty much equal numbers – but for different types of payment. Women apply for fewer Crisis Grants, which are roughly £70 per personal award, and for more Community Care Grants with an average value of £640. Further analysis is necessary, but at first glance it suggests that women are applying for household and family support and men for individual support, which would be consistent with what we know about women’s spending patterns within the family and household.

It’s not just this data that leaves us guessing. In the Scottish Government’s latest bulletin on Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland: 2012/13, there is no data for women and men, but only as households or ‘pensioners’ (of both sexes). Yet again, women are invisible in public policy.

The proposals for independence or further devolution don’t offer much more by way of specifics for an end to women’s poverty. Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission offers little for women beyond a focus on representation on corporate and public boards. Scotland’s Future, the White Paper for Independence promises a social investment state, aiming for ‘positive investment in people throughout their lives’, but without much specific focus on the gendered nature of poverty and responses to it.

The Scottish Women’s Budget Group (SWBG) continues to push the Scottish Government for a budget process that goes beyond the commitment from Cabinet Secretary John Swinney to “mitigate the worst excesses of the UK government”, positive as that aspiration may be. SWBG campaigns for a budget process that makes policy decisions and allocates resources in a way that will advance women’s equality and eliminate discrimination and disadvantage. This means government in Scotland not just staving off the savagery of Westminster and the insipid challenge from the Opposition. It means promoting gender equality as a central and driving political goal and ambition.

Ending women’s poverty in Scotland means equal and decent pay for decent work, progressive and fair taxation of individuals not households or couples, and a social protection system that values care and invests in wellbeing now and for the future. It is not beyond our reach or our imagination. It needs the will to change and have a different vision of our future.

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Angela is Convenor of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group and a Research Fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University. She is writing here in a personal capacity. Twitter: @angelao44

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