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Attempts to ensure that Universal Credit mirrors the world of work have fallen foul of existing gender biases, but benefits don’t have to be like this. Could Basic Income offer a feminist vision of the welfare state?

Payment Changes Under Universal Credit

The government’s flagship welfare policy, Universal Credit, is driven by a determination that those on welfare should face the same challenges and decisions as those in work.

There are well documented concerns on what this means for the lives of the most vulnerable, and the dehumanising narrative the policy creates, including Anthony Painter’s declaration that ‘enough is enough’ when it comes to the shortcomings of Universal Credit.

The new benefit brings together six existing or ‘legacy’ unemployment benefits into a single payment. By doing this, it changes the way payments are made, the value of those payments, and the conditionality placed on recipients.

Some of these changes have incurred significant repercussions for people receiving them.

The move to monthly payments has had a big impact on those who have previously received fortnightly payments for other benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance. There is also the impact of sanctioning recipients for small infringements in their job search (which means people can be left with no income for up to 3 years).

How Universal Credit Hurts Women

Universal Credit has actively disadvantaged women by failing to address existing inequalities. For example, Universal Credit makes a single payment to households, not one to each individual in a couple. This perpetuates an outdated understanding of household family income and plays into the status quo of household gender dynamics.

Charities such as Women’s Aid have raised particular concerns for women in abusive relationships on Universal Credit, as the policy makes it easier for their partners to hold financial power and harder for them to access the means to leave.

The two-child limit for welfare recipients is another example of the policy’s adverse impact on women. Families on Universal Credit receive financial support for their first two children, but nothing more for any children after this.

The limit has been rationalised by the Department for Work and Pensions as a way to ensure that claimants face the same decisions and challenges as those whose entire income comes from work, but again this is an inherently gendered issue. Single parents account for three quarters (74%) of all households with children claiming Universal Credit, and most of these will be single mothers.

The policy is particularly concerning for survivors of rape, as a lack of flexibility in the system places the onus on the mother to provide evidence that she was raped and gives the state power of denial.

These examples highlight how a gender-neutral approach to the design of Universal Credit has failed to account for the female experience.

Could a Basic Income benefit women’s rights?

For welfare to more effectively support women, or to even go further and promote equality, there needs to be a radical change.

At the RSA, we see a wider benefit in an overhaul of the British welfare system and are advocates for experiments of a Basic Income. Under such a system, everyone receives a fixed and equal monthly payment, which is neither means tested (based on what you earn) or sanctionable (able to be taken away due to behaviour).

A primary motivation for this change is to re-empower individuals rather than enforce conditionality and limitations for those relying on welfare to survive.

The policy has the potential to open up opportunities for women, however it is essential that lessons are learnt from the shortcomings of the current system. There are some clear and direct benefits to a Basic Income for women, particularly when looking at the policy in contrast to Universal Credit:

  • Every payment is given to the individual if they are over the age of 18, meaning that financial agency is placed in the hands of the individual, not the household. This is an important distinction for women in abusive relationships who, in contrast to the current system, would no longer be financially dependent on their abuser.
  • There is additional support for all children, with no arbitrary caps based on the size of the family. This opens up a greater opportunity to pay for both children and childcare, something which is currently a major barrier to mothers on welfare looking for employment.
  • By removing the threat of sanctions for not accepting inappropriate work, women with children can seek employment that is flexible and tailored to their needs as a mother.

Basic Income and the role of women in the labour market

There are wider arguments to be made to support Basic Income, regardless of the failures of the current system.

Analysis by the Resolution Foundation last year found that women were more likely to be in the lowest paid jobs than men, and that they were less likely to be able to progress out of low pay. Universal payments would support these women to keep their heads above water.

And, looking inside the home, the ONS estimate that women carry out 10 hours more work in the home per week than men. Again, a Basic Income could act as an antidote to this, empowering and affording them the means to pursue their own interests.

However, we need to stay mindful of the fact that a Basic Income is for everyone.

Whilst it could be an important step for women on low income, it will not actively lessen inequalities without careful attention. Basic Income payments are blind to their context, and so don’t alone incentive for a greater contribution to the home for men.

Left unattended, there is a risk that current attempts to rebalance these roles could lose momentum as some may consider Basic Income payments as remuneration for women’s work in the home.

Therefore, a more holistic approach to gender inequalities, of which a Basic Income offers one strand, is essential. Conversations about women’s progression in the workplace, stereotypes about male and female types of employment, the distribution of family leave and power dynamics in the home, amongst others, need to be had to help inform any large-scale implementation of a Basic Income.

Making sure basic income supports feminism

With the concept in its infancy in the UK, we still have the opportunity to make sure the policy supports the feminist cause.

An important step we can already take is to ensure we stay mindful of the narrative around the legislation, and a sensitivity to the myriad of contexts which a Basic Income will be paid into.

The RSA’s argument for a Basic Income is built around new opportunities for individual change, such as trying a new job, training or creative activity, and in ensuring that there is wider, and more tailored, support to ensure everyone benefits from the changes they need.

Our Public Services and Communities team have been running workshops in Fife to understand the feasibility of a Basic Income trial in the area, and what this would look like for a range of residents, including women in the current welfare system.

Making a concerted effort to explore how this may play out for women and mothers, and to provide additional support where needed, will create an inclusive conversation around the policy.

Whilst Basic Income is largely unchartered territory in the UK, an early consideration of the policy suggests that, if it’s carried out mindfully, it has the potential to usher in a new phase in the pursuit of gender equality.

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