The coalition may present itself, like all the main political parties, as pro-family, but it is mothers who have become the “shock absorbers” for the coalition’s cuts in welfare benefits and childcare provision, say critics.
From cuts to maternity grants and child benefits, to closures of Sure Start centres, childcare schemes and after-school clubs, it is women – particularly single mothers on low incomes – who bear the brunt of attempts to reduce the deficit.
The changes will affect women’s incomes and ability to enter the job market, critics say, and put many at risk of poverty. “The disproportionate impact of the cuts on women raises issues of fairness and calls into question the idea of society sharing the weight of national debt reduction,” said Abigail Davies, assistant director of policy and practice at the Chartered Institute of Housing. “Overall the public spending cuts are known to impact disproportionately on single parent families, most of which are headed by women. Cuts to benefits and public spending, coupled with stricter job-seeking expectations for lone parents claiming benefits, will trap some women in an impossible situation.”
Benefit cuts that affect women include reductions in the childcare tax credit, the Sure Start maternity grant, and the health in pregnancy grant, and the freezing of child benefit rates for three years.
Katherine Rake, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, said: “The targeting of family benefits for cutbacks in the last 12 months means women’s incomes have been disproportionately hit. For many women, child benefit was the only source of income they received directly, giving them independence and control over family spending. The coalition’s decision to end universal child benefit was therefore a particularly painful blow.”
There are concerns that single parents – most of whom are women – will also be unfairly affected by housing benefit reform. “This will require some families to move, which is expensive, unsettling, affects [children’s] educational performance, and puts families into less economically successful areas with reduced employment opportunities,” said Davies. “Cuts to tax credits, Sure Start, after-school clubs and so on, create further barriers to employment for single parents.
“The government wants to encourage social mobility and tackle poverty, but these cuts do not create an environment which supports women or enables them to help themselves.”
Despite the government’s commitment to guarantee 15 hours a week free childcare provision, childcare support has been badly hit by local authority spending cuts. These have led to widespread cuts in Sure Start children’s centres and after-school and holiday play schemes. Although many councils have committed themselves to keeping centres open, most have reduced services drastically.
A survey of mothers using Sure Start centres, carried out in February by the Daycare Trust charity, found that 35% felt that the removal or reduction of services would leave them more socially isolated, and 32% felt it would be harder to see their midwife or health visitor.
Rake said there had been some positive policy developments for mothers over the past 12 months, such as proposals for shared postnatal parental leave, and to extend rights to flexible working. She added: “The government must deliver on these proposals if it is to make strides towards a truly family-friendly society.”