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'Welfare' and women: an update

women's povertyLast week, George Osborne announced that the Treasury will start publishing annual breakdowns of public tax spend per head, in a move that will apparently increase transparency for taxpayers.

Cue rounds of analysis raising bones of contention online. It is in no way surprising that ‘welfare’ has been at the heart of debate, with many commentators quick to point out that our esteemed HMT has chosen to chunk up the data such that ‘welfare’ spending is represented extremely misleadingly indeed.

Yet again, this fans the flames around common myths relating to social security and frankly despicable notions of the undeserving/ deserving poor. Information presented as objective and factual is, conversely, deeply ideological.

Also unsurprisingly, gender has not featured in the prominent debate online about welfare this week, despite the enormous implications of any such discussion for women and their children.

Stigma around poverty in Scotland is a major issue, and lone mothers are vilified in particular ways in the press and public imagination. This is rooted in class and gender prejudices, and cultural assumptions around women’s reproductive choices, capabilities, ambitions, desires and responsibilities.

The media plays a central role in this (take, for example, this pearl of wisdom from the Sun: “The criminals overwhelmingly come from broken homes - they were brought up by single mothers who couldn't cope”)

So does government. It’s not long at all since politicians openly waged war on single mothers. Remember astonishing lines such as:

The current government has been more subtle about the sexist elements of its decimation of the welfare state. But ‘welfare reform’ is deeply riven with misogyny, class prejudice and ideologically-driven, one-dimensional and wholly outdated conception of ‘family values’.

We set out the the diverse ways in which women and gender relations are impacted by the policy changes under welfare reform in a joint position paper with Scottish Women’s Aid, Close the Gap and Scottish Refugee Council earlier this year. The paper also called on the Scottish Government to integrate gender concerns throughout its ‘welfare reform mitigation’ activities and to proactively target different groups of women struggling to cope with the changes.

Since, we have used the document to lobby MSPs, parliamentary committees, councillors, Scottish Government officials and peer organisations across the third sector, and to raise awareness of gendered poverty with the public. As a result, Engender now sits on the Scottish Government Welfare Reform Scrutiny Group, has participated in sessions on emerging Scottish Government policy approaches and will be presenting the project at a conference on Gender, poverty and social inclusion in Brussels next month.

Nonetheless, we are up against it. No-one has knocked down the door in their rush to implement our recommendations or provide vitally-needed funds to support community projects for women. In the meantime, we are continuing to chip away at the blanket gender-blind approach to ‘welfare reform’ work within Scottish Government and Parliament. This week, we submitted written evidence to the Welfare Reform Committee’s scrutiny of the Draft Budget. For the die-hard policy geeks amongst you, our response the Committee’s call for evidence on the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill can be found here.

Along with Scottish Women’s Aid and Scottish Refugee Council we also recently submitted gender analysis and case studies to the Scottish Government Welfare Division, for inclusion in a training package for local authority Scottish Welfare Fund teams. We’re on the cusp of developing a second phase of this joint work: if you or your organisation would like to be involved please get in touch with us.

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