Women should not be held back because of the vital care they provide

Let’s use International Women's Day 2020 to call for the change needed to loosen poverty's grip on women.

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD) and alongside the celebrations of women’s achievements and progress towards gender parity, it’s also a day to highlight the challenges women face and the continued need for change. It is not right that one in five women are currently living in poverty in the UK. For many, caring for others is a significant part of their experience of poverty.

Single mothers are at greatest risk of poverty

The women most at risk of poverty are lone parents: 43% live in poverty compared with 25% of single women without children, and 22% of women who have children with a partner. Many of these women will be in persistent poverty – in poverty now and at least two of the three previous years. Lone parents are at least twice as likely as any other family type to be in this long-term form of poverty.

This is all true for single fathers too. But since lone parents are overwhelmingly female (less than 10% are men) these issues mostly affect women.

Low pay is a major factor leading to this high poverty rate. Most lone parents are in low-paid work and are more likely to work in low-paid sectors such as retail and accommodation than mothers in couples. Often this means non-standard hours or irregular shift patterns which make it hard to arrange formal childcare. Our recent UK Poverty 2020 report found that more than four in five women in low-paid service sectors such as retail, social care and hospitality work at least some weekends, with more than half working most weekends.

Single mothers can also be limited in where they work. Being both the sole earner and carer in a family means coordinating the morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up of the kids with their commute to work, and makes them much more likely to drive to work, and work closer to home.

For some, the move to Universal Credit has worsened these difficulties. Vicky – a single mother with a 10-year-old son interviewed in recent JRF research – finds the monthly payments make it much harder to manage her finances. Other single parents have spoken of feeling trapped ‘in a never-ending circle’ by the benefits system.

A quarter of women in poverty have children with a partner

Lone parents are the women most likely to be in poverty, but they only account for 14% of the 5.3 million women currently living in poverty. Many more women are in a couple with children and so despite a lower poverty rate (22%) they make up a quarter of women in poverty.

It’s important to note that these figures are likely to be an underestimate because they assume both partners benefit equally from a household’s income. There is evidence that the burden of poverty in a household can fall harder on women, as they are more likely to sacrifice their own spending for their children.

For women in work, they are more likely to be low paid and in part-time work than their partner. But switching to part-time work – often essential for mothers to fit around their caring roles – comes at a cost for many women. Once a woman has switched from full-time to part-time work the chance of progressing to high-paid work falls and years of accumulated experience do not amount to pay increases in the same way as in full-time roles.

Taking time out of work has a lasting impact on women’s chance of escaping poverty

Years of low-paid work with limited progression add up. This leads to women’s wages gradually falling behind men. For mothers, by the time their first child is 20, hourly wages are about a third lower than men’s. The impact is clear at pension age. A lifetime of lower earnings means women who are single pensioners have a higher poverty rate than men in the same situation: 23% compared with 20%.

To solve poverty there must be more support for women who are caring for others

Women should not lose out because of the vital care they provide. In a society that believes in compassion and justice, it’s simply wrong that providing childcare for children, and informal care for relatives and friends, has a knock-on effect on many women’s wages or pensions savings.

The good news is that significant progress has been made in the past. Between 1994 and 2010 the poverty rate for lone parents fell from 58% to 40%, and the overall percentage of women in poverty fell from 24% to less than 20%. But since then the likelihood of poverty has again started to rise and the risk is that this progress is undone.

To effectively solve UK poverty it’s essential that more support is provided to women who are caring for others. We can redesign the labour market to work for part-time workers, ensuring they can progress and their experience is rewarded. The delivery and generosity of Universal Credit can be improved to prevent those with limited ability to work being pulled into poverty. 

So amid the celebrations, let’s use IWD 2020 as a day to call for the change needed to loosen poverty's grip on women.