Alive and Kicking: Women's and men's respones to poverty and globalisation in the UK | Poverty

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This paper explores what it means to be poor in a country generally percieved as wealthy, and how poverty itself is shaped by people's gender identity and their relationships to a changing labour market. Some of the issues raised will also have a resonance in other contexts where paid employment has in the past been perceived as a predominantly male preserve
    Alive and kicking: women’s and men’s responses to poverty and globalisation in the UK Jo Rowlands November 2002  Alive and kicking: women’s and men’s responses to poverty and globalisation in the UK Jo Rowlands 1   Globalisation is a process that affects people in the North as well as the South. Its negative effects are felt by people living in poverty in wealthier countries, as well as by those living in  poorer ones. Drawing on experience from the work of Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme, this article explores some aspects of how changing labour markets affect men and women living in  poverty in the UK. People’s sex is a key determinant of who is poor. Women and men have different experiences of poverty, different livelihood options, and different potential routes out of poverty. Government attempts to eliminate poverty, whilst laudable and to some extent successful, have been hampered by the gendered complexities of poverty. Globalisation has been defined as ‘the process through which an increasingly free flow of ideas, people, goods, services and capital leads to the integration of economies and societies’ (Köhler 2002). It is not news to say that globalisation is a major influence on the breadth and depth of poverty around the world. Nor is it news to say that it has affected the North as well as the South. That globalisation affects the nature  of poverty in the North is something which perhaps fewer people are aware of. Similarly, it is now well-known that people’s daily experience of poverty is defined and shaped by their sex, as well as by other variables. This is as true in the UK as elsewhere. 2  The intersection of gender-based discrimination, poverty, and the forces of globalisation in the UK, however, is less familiar. Increasingly, the reasons for some women and some men being, becoming or remaining poor, and why this happens, are to do with their relationships with the labour market of a global economy. This article will explore what it means to be poor in a country generally perceived as wealthy, and how poverty itself is shaped by people’s gender identity and their relationships to a changing labour market. Some of the issues raised will also have resonance in other contexts where paid employment has in the past been perceived as a predominantly male preserve. Experience in two poor communities in the UK Oxfam has been working in partnership with the South Bank Women’s Centre, in a very deprived area in Teesside in north-east England (Links 2001). This region has 27 per cent of people living on a low income, 3  the highest proportion in England outside London. 4  At a workshop, women involved with the centre were asked to describe the changes they had seen over the past decade. Jobs for men in steel and ship-building had gone. A very small number of men had taken over the housework to enable women to undertake paid work, but men were not willing to take part-time work. The government had put resources into economic development in the area, and this attracted small businesses, mostly foreign-owned. More women had entered the workforce on a part time basis, often on short-term contracts. There was a constant challenge to juggle low and intermittent income with state welfare benefits. Women had increasingly taken on responsibility for household budgets, and described the way in which this left their menfolk feeling inadequate. Older men became depressed, and frustrations were often taken out on the women; there were many arguments. There was also an increase in the number of lone parents, with women being less willing to put up with the increased levels of abuse that had followed when the men lost their jobs. Sue Andersen, the Centre’s Director, expressed it in this way: ‘There aren’t the jobs that the men want. No big companies are coming in bringing traditional work. We’re getting part-time and short contract work, and more women are interested in doing those jobs. Yet the men aren’t involved in the regeneration of our area, it’s the women taking leadership in the community. The men don’t seem to want to do the work.’  Another Oxfam partner in the UK is a community organisation in the ex-mining communities of south Wales, 5  which have been greatly affected by the switch from a national policy of sourcing of coal within the UK to importing cheaper coal supplies, largely from eastern  Europe. The following account from the co-ordinator of the project illustrates the poverty that the organisation is fighting, and mentions some of the work it is undertaking: ‘One of the first things we did was send around a questionnaire to everyone on the estate. We asked people what they thought about living on the estate. People said the best thing about the estate was the road out. We had no community services working with people here. No-one was dealing with the problems on the estate. There was nowhere for people to meet. We had environmental problems. There was no street lighting, and people were doing drugs in the derelict buildings. There are massive drug problems here and massive problems with anti-social behaviour. So nobody left their houses. ‘Then we targeted the youth annoyance problem. The kids said they wanted somewhere to play football. We didn’t have any youth schemes on the estate – every other estate had them, but there was nothing for kids to do here. So we kept asking and asking the authorities to start a youth scheme here. Now nearly every child on the estate is involved in the Foundation’s youth activities. We’ve got teams for under 18s, under 16s, under 10s… Even a game of football can make a big difference to people on this estate. … ‘Before, there was no lighting in the middle of the estate, behind the shops. People didn’t want to walk past the derelict buildings at night – they were frightened. People used to hang out there doing drugs. Now the Council has put a street light in. Before people here didn’t have anyone to represent them, so the estate was forgotten. ‘The main employer here was a light bulb factory at the end of the road. It closed ten years ago and then there was massive unemployment on the estate. Things died completely when the social club closed seven or eight years ago. Nobody had anywhere to meet and there was no focus for the community. It made me so sad to see people just shutting their doors. Years ago, if someone was ill, the community would have all chipped in to help. ‘It’s been very difficult to get the men involved. When we wanted to interview people about their views on the estate, we couldn’t get any men to participate. We get a few men interested through the football but we have to work out other ways to get them more involved.’ (Project co-ordinator)  A detailed participatory needs assessment was undertaken, with Oxfam support, in January and February 2001. It was carried out by two local people, one man, one woman, who work for the local community organisation. Men and women were interviewed separately. The results reveal a wealth of detail about men’s and women’s experience of poverty, and the livelihood options available to them. Some of the findings are outlined below.   On the estate, family is the centre of women’s world. Although they are willing to take up training, the needs assessment suggested that women’s horizons are determined by the boundaries of the estate, and by what will be useful to them in getting jobs which mean they can support their children, or give them help of other kinds: for example, with homework. Women tended to recognise that the lack of training is a barrier which holds them back from reaching their full potential. They see everything through the lens of childcare responsibilities, and work is an additional rather than a central concern for many of them. The raising of children was seen by many as a life choice; when their children were grown up, then they could think about a job. Their concern was less with the state of the local employment market, and more with the practical difficulties that prevent them earning enough to support themselves and their children. They said that the jobs on offer are few, low-paid, and offer limited opportunities. Formal childcare is inflexible and scarce, and takes up a big percentage of the wage. They did not see the jobs which are available as an attractive option: they do not bring in enough money to replace the state benefits that would be lost as a result of entering paid employment. If they did work at all, they said they preferred it to be on a casual basis, and therefore able to be picked up and dropped around childcare needs. Women saw life on welfare benefits as a struggle, in which they could expect to deprive themselves for the needs of their families, and expressed the view that it is hard to manage if there is no other income or support. Women spoke of the increased likelihood of going into debt in these circumstances, which was not something highlighted by men.   Men on the estate expressed the belief    that academic qualifications are needed as the workforce is now very competitive – and this is a particular problem perceived by older men, with men over 40 tending to see themselves as unemployable. These men expressed willingness to undertake training if they could see a direct connection with better jobs, because their world-view means they live day to day for the necessity of bringing in money. They see the training that is currently on offer as slave labour, in that it is inadequate in the present, because the work it would prepare them for is badly paid, and inadequate for the future because it doesn’t improve the quality of jobs actually on offer.   The fact that women see caring as their job, and men do not, is a critical factor holding women back from better training and employment, and men from greater involvement with their families. Women focused on the practical difficulties of undertaking training (for example, in information technology) which might open up new employment possibilities. The cost of materials and transport, course fees, combined with training not being flexible around school hours, childcare and part-time work, prevents them from taking it up. Women automatically accept responsibility for childcare. Many women said they would prefer to leave their children with a member of their family, who they feel they can trust. Finding childcare is a particular problem for lone parents if they cannot call on family members  – for them, the costs and emotional ties of having to have a childminder mean that it is difficult for them to go out to work or to undertake training at all. The vicious circle of getting into high interest debt, and then not taking up employment because of increased repayments once off benefits, 6  impacts on women’s self esteem. Women on the estate mentioned other personal barriers that men do not. They highlight the problem of ill-health and disability. They mention the personal isolation which comes from the lack of support and facilities for ill and disabled people and their carers. The fact that men do not mention them may be because of men’s reluctance to admit to problems and stresses, rather than because they don’t suffer from them. Men do highlight one problem, though, that may be particular to a male response to crisis – they say that alcohol and drugs offer a way out for many men when faced with the social and economic climate. Gender and poverty in the UK: the wider picture How do the two situations discussed above measure up against men’s and women’s gendered experiences of poverty in the UK? Some basic statistics show that the experience of poverty outlined above is not unique. The measure of people living in poverty most commonly used by government in the UK is that of people falling below the ‘low income threshold’ of 60 per cent of median household income, after deducting housing costs. This relative measure of poverty 7  is based on the actual disposable income 8  of households, gained from any legal source. Some 23 per cent of the population of the UK is poor by this measure (New Policy Institute 2002). It is not straightforward to break this statistic down by gender (see note 6), but two groups where women are predominant stand out in the figures experiencing persistent poverty: 9  lone parents (27 per cent of this group – a figure that is falling but still significant, since lone parents are only 8 per cent of the general population), and single pensioners (21 per cent of this group, and increasing). The largest group of persistently poor people which can be discerned from statistics   is the group living within workless households. As well as formally unemployed people, this figure includes people who do not do paid work because of caring responsibilities, illness and disability. So although the figures available are not transparent on gender, it is clear that poverty is a condition that affects women in greater numbers than men. Poverty in the UK also has an ethnic dimension, with 62 per cent of households headed by people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi srcin being in the bottom 20 per cent income bracket. The recent context within which poverty exists in the UK is that of an economy which has been growing faster than other European economies, and which is becoming more and more ‘individualised’, with the individual increasingly taking the place of the household or the community as the ‘building block of the economy’. However, in practice, one income is no longer generally seen as sufficient for household survival. Another change has been in the structure of the benefits system, whereby the Conservative government of the 1980s moved from linking increases in long-term benefits to earnings levels, to linking them to prices –
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