What is austerity, and how does it affect women? The Femedic’s complete guide

Austerity and women's health

The word austerity has been bounced around in the UK a lot since 2010, when the newly elected Conservative government decided to employ austerity measures throughout the UK. What this actually means though, is not widely known. Turning on the news and listening to political debate, especially during election season, it’s easy to get swept up in a wave of jargon that a lot of us find ourselves following without understanding the actual meaning or impact.

We’ve put together this guide to help break down not only what austerity is, but what it means for thousands of different women living with its effects in the UK. And, most importantly, how it impacts their health. We think it’s important that this information is clear, comprehensive, and easily accessible.

What is austerity?
This is what austerity means to the UK
Austerity in numbers
Austerity and UK economics
How is austerity affecting Britain’s people?
How does austerity affect women?
Ripple effects on society
What now?


What is austerity?

Austerity is a collection of economic policies that effectively aim to reduce the national deficit — which means that the government has more money going out then money coming in. The way that we experience austerity in the UK is due to the policies the Conservative party put forward in 2010 to reduce the deficit. These policies include significant cuts to health and public services, including welfare and benefit cuts.

In its simplest sense, austerity measures can be described as “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.” It’s important to note that austerity is not the same everywhere. In fact, almost the whole of the EU was forced into using austerity measures after the financial crash. Greece’s government implemented spending cuts equal to 1.5% of its output and Italy’s recession was so bad they were nearly labelled “unsustainable”, leaving the Berlusconi government to implement austerity measures in the form of higher hospital fees. Some other countries who have used austerity are the Irish Republic, Portugal and France.

Public expenditure in the UK is often referred to as the deficit, which often gets confused with the national debt, which is what the UK government owes. Both contribute to the economic status of the UK and both are currently at shocking levels. This matters to the UK’s economic rating, it’s banking system and to its businesses. People care about it because it describes how rich we are as a country, and a richer country means a better standard of living for its citizens, right?

Well, not exactly. The austerity programme in the UK was deployed by the newly-elected conservative government in 2010 in order to lower the deficit, making the country richer, by implementing widespread cuts to services and structures.

Austerity at its core is a wildly unequal system of decreasing debt, and in almost every instance drastically affects the lives of those living in or on the brink of poverty. The reason for this is that it targets welfare services that exist for the poorest people in society. In its simplest terms, austerity is about taking money away from services that help redistribute wealth, to make the businesses at the top richer.

So why aren’t more people up in arms about it? The reality is that all the jargon surrounding economic policy and politics is hard to follow. Unless you’re well-versed in fiscal policy and keep regularly up-to-date with politics, which is hard to do unless you can dedicate a large amount of time to learning what it all means in the first place, you’re going to have to trust that what your local representatives and televised politicians say about it is correct.

Most people don’t actually know what austerity is and largely don’t realise cuts to local childcare services, job losses or libraries closing are all connected to it. What they do know, thanks to the media, is that the deficit is bad and must be eradicated, so austerity has been allowed to go on almost untouched by the people it’s affecting the most.


This is what austerity means to the UK

When austerity was implemented in the UK, it was deployed mostly through cuts. The NHS and education have ring-fenced funding, and so weren’t directly affected. Local councils have instead borne the brunt, taking over 50% of the cuts. The cuts directly affect care, housing and income. The biggest cuts are to benefits, (most notably disability, childrens and housing), children’s services, adult social care and an increase in income tax across the board.

As well as cuts to benefits, the Conservative’s strategy has also been to make it harder to claim the benefits that still exist. This is common, open knowledge; not some kind of conspiracy put out by the opposition, but the plain truth. In order to cut government spending, and redistribute that money into reducing the UK’s debt, they have made it harder for people to claim the benefits that are still available.

If you think back to all the ‘benefit scrounger’ discourse that was around during the 2010 and 2015 campaign trail, it’s easy to see how the general population could become complicit in allowing these benefit cuts to happen. In reality, the amount of benefit fraud that is committed is thought to be very low, 0.7% is lost from £1.2 billion. Of course, this is not the message we’ve been fed over the past eight or so years.


Austerity in numbers

According to UNISON research, since 2012 councils have shut at least 350 youth centres, 41,000 youth service places for young people and at least 35,000 hours of outreach work by youth workers have been removed. Since 2010, £259 million has been cut from youth service spending by councils. £82m has been cut from children’s centre budgets and 285 children’s centres have merged or closed since 2010.

Analysis conducted by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2016 shows that falling incomes and rising living costs mean that food is now over 20% less affordable for the poorest 10% of people in the UK compared to 2003. Austerity also saw the merging of local councils into unitary councils instead of two-tier, leaving them unable to fund all their running projects. 70% of councils are cutting bus funding, leaving the cost of using the bus going up each year. According to Oxfam, local authorities have also cut 13% of funding from leisure centre budgets and parks and open spaces budgets have lost £41.8m since 2010.


Austerity and UK economics

George Osborne, as chancellor of the exchequer in 2010 claimed that he could balance the UK’s books in 5 years, a long shot that did not come to fruition. Although it did half the amount, it was still at £80bn for the year 2015. Philip Hammond took over in 2016, and for the financial year to the end of March 2017, the deficit was £52bn or 2.6% of GDP<. Not making the same mistake as his predecessor, Hammond has not made any promises for an exact date when the amount will be fully cleared — instead the Conservatives are committed to eliminating it by “the middle of the next decade.” For the fiscal year ending in March 2018, the “current budget deficit” is estimated to be £18.2 billion and the difference between spending and revenue is estimated to be £69.8 billion.

Of course, where we are now in terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union throws things into disarray. Not only did Brexit downgrade the UK to the 6th richest country in the world (having previously sat at 5th) we’re unaware how much our break up with Europe is going to cost us. It’s reported that £3bn has been set aside to prepare UK as we leave the EU, but does Britain’s need to redistribute this funding to completely counteract the point of austerity? It’s possible we could end up in a worse position than we were before. It’s certainly something to keep in mind.


How is austerity affecting Britain’s people?

The thing is, it’s not that austerity isn’t working, it’s doing exactly what it was meant to. It is lowering the deficit and the national debt, keeping Britain as one of the richest countries in the world and letting it thrive, but it’s also widening the gap between the 1% and the 99%, leaving Britain’s poorest people vulnerable and in dire need of help.

The amount of people using food banks is one large indicator of this poverty. According to the Trussell Trust, there is 13% increase in people using foodbanks in 2017 from to 2016, and they also believe this will only increase over the following 6 months to record numbers. In the fiscal year 2016/17, the trust said it gave out 1.2 million food packs in the UK. It’s also expected that an additional 800,000 children are expected to be living in poverty by 2020. But that’s just the beginning.

The nature of austerity measures means that those in society who are vulnerable or already in poverty are in the most danger, with mothers, especially those who identify as BAME, disabled and LGBT people being hit the hardest. Here are some of the ways each demographic is affected by the cuts.


How does austerity affect women?

Women as a whole have been hit quite dramatically by the cuts. According to an article in the Guardian as well as research from UNISON, there has been a 74% increase in women’s underemployment, with many working more jobs to make up hours. One thing to note is that the large cuts to local council directly affects women’s employment, as the three quarters of people employed in these positions are women. Women’s employment in local government fell by over 250,000 between 2010 and 2014.

It also affects women in ways not immediately thought of. As part of cuts to local council, as well as rising energy costs, street lights are now switched off or dimmed for a period each night across Great Britain, which affects how safe women are when walking alone at night. 85% of women surveyed by UNISON said too little street light would affect how safe they felt. Although it might not seem like a big issue, most would argue that safety is a basic right for most citizens, and removing it as such is lowering the quality of living for a lot of women especially those living in impoverished areas.


Austerity measures directly and significantly affect mothers, as a lot of the cuts surround childcare and child benefit. Though education is ring fenced by the government, there have been cuts to children’s services and higher eligibility to childcare allowances. Mothers, especially those living alone with young dependables, are the ones that benefit the most from welfare services as well as benefits, and so are greatly affected when they are taken away.

Lone mothers (who represent 92% of lone parents) will experience a drop in living standards of 18% (£8,790). Many households are having to choose between heating your home to putting food on the table, and with the lack of clubs and services dedicated to young people, mothers are having to do more than they did before to keep their children occupied, healthy and stimulated, which adds an extra burden they can’t afford.

There are many other specific ways it affects mothers, that we don’t have the scope to delve into within this article, but you can read our other articles on this subject, such as how austerity affects maternal mental health and how cuts to sexual health services affect women.

Black, Asian, minority, ethnic

Those who identify as Black, Asian, minority or ethnic (BAME), are unfortunately more likely to be living in poverty, but whilst many are fighting to change this, austerity measures means that those on the brink of poverty are likely to dive back into it. Black and Asian households in the lowest fifth of incomes have experienced the biggest average drop in living standards of 19.2% and 20.1%, respectively.

The problems felt by White mothers are also intensified for a large number of BAME mothers. In 2015/16, 50% of Bangladeshi households, 46% of Pakistani households and 40% of Black African/Caribbean households were living in poverty compared to 19% of White British households. Not only do BAME women experience racism and sexism in the recruitment market, making it harder for them to gain employment, progress at work, and be paid fairly, they are also more likely to live in households with dependent children. BAME households on the whole are generally bigger, and over half of Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Black African households had one or more dependent children compared with just over a quarter of White British households.


Those who live with a disability have been hit hard by austerity due to the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) changing to the Personal Independence Payment,(PIP) which not only offers a lower amount of money, but is much harder to obtain. The switch has been surrounded in controversy since it’s introduction, yet although many are against it and there has been widespread criticism about the way it will affect those unable to work due to disability, it is still going ahead. Replacing DLA with PIP is to reduce the cost of the benefit by 20%.


The cuts surrounding LGBTQ+ people affect the community in a different way. Having specialist LGBTQ+ services is seen by many politicians as ‘a nice thing to do’ when the country is in a period of wealth and these are often the first to get cut when money needs to be saved.

Although there is the argument that LGBTQ+ people can use ‘regular’ services, these are often not suitable. Many LGBTQ+ people suffer discrimination and embarrassment when using these services, which leaves them unlikely to use them at all. Specialised LGBTQ+ youth services also help young people find a space space away from violence or aggression, whereas regular youth services are often trigger-happy to call the parents of those suffering, who quite often can be the source of aggression.

Aside from these reasons, the rhetoric of removing these services is a negative one. By taking them away, it propels the message that issues and discrimination suffered by LGBTQ+ people is simply not as important as the needs of others, which only adds to the problems that they already face in their day-to-day life.


Ripple effects on society

Whilst we’ve discussed at length the specifics cuts that are affecting women and those in poverty or vulnerable positions now, the reality is we haven’t even begun to see the potential damages austerity has had on our country. As with the ripple effect of women feeling less safe because of cuts to street lamps, cutting ‘unnecessary’ services such as youth centres in order to put money into the deficit damages our society later on. Cuts to youth centres, community centres and leisure centres are the first to get cut because they don’t feel as important when compared them to things like knuckling down on crime — but realistically, it’s these cuts that are going to be increasing crime in 20 years’ time.

At the time of writing, we’ve only been under austerity for less than 10 years, and we’ve seen an increase in poverty and inequality. In 20 years time, the children who grew up with overworked mothers and nowhere to go are going to be the indicators of whether we were right to cut their safe spaces. It’s likely we’ll see an increase in crime due to boredom, teenage pregnancy due to lack of youth health services, and strained class and race relations due to the way austerity increases inequality.


What now?

The biggest issue we face is that as a country, we’re so unaware of our own economic policies and how they actually impact how people live. If you speak to most people, especially mothers most affected, the understanding of how the shortened hours of their council-run day care relates to austerity measures is not there. Where people will blame local council for the issues they face, many don’t realise that they are a direct impact of Conservative policy. But that’s where we have the power to change things. It might sound like it’s all doom and gloom, but being armed with the information about how it all relates to each other is the best way to navigate austerity as a policy and how it affects you.

The best way for us to band together as women is to see and work hard to understand each others’ experiences, so that we can campaign for inclusive change and create inclusive support networks.

We hope by instigating the discussion, we can encourage everyone to talk about the impact austerity has had on their lives, therefore eliminating the problem of people being uninformed. The more we know, the more we can help each other, and the closer we come to finding a solution.

Page last updated February 2018

Ella Guthrie

Ella is a writer and journalist, with a background in politics. After studying this to degree level she volunteered for the youth-led movement My Life My Say before joining The Femedic, and finds anything surrounding government policy and change fascinating. Her specific interests include domestic policy surrounding health, treatment of the NHS, and how current policy is affecting access to healthcare for different genders. In her spare time she runs Too Many Man, a podcast championing women in hip-hop.

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