UK: 'Women Bearing the Brunt of Austerity in Britain'

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New York Times

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — Sometimes Jennifer Bradshaw dreams of a job in finance, and last year she thought about going back to school to become a nurse. She would do anything, she said, that would give her the chance to get ahead — and to meet the bills that seem to weigh more heavily on her family every month.

As it is, she works 16 hours a week in a clerical job at a local supermarket, and her earnings go to paying off loans she and her fiancé are carrying. She would love to go full time, working days instead of evenings and getting a handle on their spiraling debt.

But with three young sons and a fourth child on the way, she cannot take on day work, at the supermarket or anywhere else, without more child care.

That, said Ms. Bradshaw, 28, feels like an impossible dream. She is dreading the phone call telling her she is about to lose the care she already has.

“It would just be like losing a right arm,” she said. “I’d have to drop that one day a week, just to be able to be at home with Joshua,” her 2-year-old.

Manchester, where Ms. Bradshaw, her partner, Lee Mellor, and their rambunctious blond boys live in a neighborhood of worn brown row houses, announced last month it was shutting its day care centers, which serve 800 children.

Like many cities and institutions around Britain, Manchester is searching for savings to close the gap created by the national government’s withdrawal of £3.5 billion, or about $5.6 billion, in support to localities this year, a drop of nearly 12 percent under Prime Minister David Cameron’s tough austerity program. Billions of pounds more are to vanish by 2015.

Mr. Cameron, a Conservative, has also lifted a requirement that the municipal authorities fund and operate Sure Start children’s centers, which offer services including prenatal checkups, breast-feeding support and day care. Their creation was a flagship achievement of the Labour government of the former prime minister Tony Blair; many strapped local councils are now closing the centers or scaling them back.

Under pressure from local families, Manchester withdrew a proposal to close its Sure Starts last month, but is planning to eliminate their day care gradually over the next two years.

As Britain shaves public services and benefits, advocates contend that women bear more than their fair share of the pain.

“The idea that what we should be doing is rolling back the state, it has really important implications for women,” said Professor Sue Himmelweit, an economist and policy coordinator of the Women’s Budget Group, an advocacy group. “Women lose particularly from public sector cuts. First of all, they lose their jobs.”

Women account for two-thirds of employees in the public sector, where the government’s budget monitor says 710,000 jobs are to disappear. They rely more heavily than men on public services and financial assistance and are expected to lose 70 percent of the £18 billion being cut from benefits like housing support and tax credits for the working poor, says the Fawcett Society, a group pushing for greater gender equality.

Because they are poorer and live longer than men, women will be disproportionately affected by reductions in services to the elderly.

Decades of progress toward greater equality with men are at risk as the downsizing of government makes it harder for mothers, particularly poor ones, to hold on to jobs, the advocates warn. A planned welfare overhaul is likely to make the problem worse by weakening incentives for second earners in poor families to work, they say.

Child care, and the tax credits that help the poorest Britons pay for it, is central to the debate. Britain’s two-parent families spend on average a third of their net incomes on child care, more than in any other wealthy country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association of free-market democracies based in Paris.

Tax credit cuts will force some women to stop working, said Celia Hannon, head of research and policy at the Family & Parenting Institute. That is likely to reduce their skills, earning potential and financial security later, she said.

Many of the Sure Start centers offer cheaper care than the private sector, and parents say their quality is often higher.

 

Ms. Bradshaw says the commercial day care centers in her part of Manchester are only slightly more costly than the £25 she pays for a six-and-a-half-hour day at Sure Start. But she feels none are as good: Her oldest son, Daniel, was expelled from a private center because of behavioral problems that the Sure Start workers quickly resolved.

“The staff at the Sure Start center, they understand the children so much more,” she says. “They treat them more like family, they give them cuddles, they sit them on the knee.”

Both Daniel, 6, who is now in school, and Matthew, 3, who goes to a school-based day care center, went to Sure Start. Two-year-old Joshua is there now, and Ms. Bradshaw had hoped to send the baby she is now carrying, too.

The center has given Ms. Bradshaw and Mr. Mellor extra time to pay bills when they needed it, something she says private services would never have done.

The couple have not made ends meet since Mr. Mellor, a garbage collector, lost the £3,000 to £4,000 he used to make each year in overtime. Reductions in the child care tax credit also hit them hard.

Ms. Bradshaw is warm and energetic, scolding the boys for wearing muddy shoes into the house and hurrying Daniel into his karate clothes after an early weekend lunch. But her voice tightens when she talks about money.

 

Collection agencies demand payment of the family’s credit card bills, and the thought of dropping a four-hour shift when the day care closes terrifies her.

It is not just the money, she said. The weekday daytime hours she would give up are her only chance to interact with colleagues and learn the routine.

“I need to be with people who know the job,” she said. “And when I’m at work, I can focus, I can do my job. I work with numbers. It’s keeping my brain going.”

What keeps Irene Savage, a single mother in Leighton Buzzard, a tidy commuter town northwest of London, awake at night is anxiety about mounting debt and a nagging feeling that she is losing the middle class existence she had assumed would always be hers.

The slide began when her marriage ended 12 years ago. Until recently, she thought her job as an office manager in a public school would see her sons through college. As the cost of food, fuel and other necessities has spiked, her salary of £17,500 a year has not budged. Like 1.6 million local government workers around the country, she is facing a third year without a cost-of-living raise. The GMB union, which represents many of those workers, has said that in times of high inflation, that pay freeze will amount to a 15 percent cut in real terms.

“It’s like I’m treading water in quicksand, if that makes any sense,” Ms. Savage said.

Stylish in skinny jeans and a carefully pressed shirt, Ms. Savage, 46, does not look desperate. But her well-groomed appearance “is a facade, because it doesn’t stop me from not sleeping at night.”

She has £13,000 in bank loans and £8,000 in expensive credit card debt. She tries to keep one of her cards just under its limit so she has it for emergencies.

“The trouble is, I’ve got so many emergencies I’m always using it,” she said.

Growing debt is a hidden effect of austerity and will keep hitting women harder, again enhancing the effects on women’s progress, Ms. Hannon said.

Ms. Savage sold all her good jewelry before Christmas, when she saw the price of gold was high. Her son’s school shoes have holes in them but she cannot afford new ones. Her mother sends her home with bags of food — “quite embarrassing and horrible,” she said.

She could probably earn more in the private sector but stays at her job because it gives her time off during school vacations and summer. Her youngest son is 15, and she does not want to leave him alone through those breaks.

Ms. Savage has a quick smile, but her eyes well up when she talks about the stress on her boys.

“My eldest son — he has seen me in floods of tears many a time,” she said. He had to defer his place at a London university to work for a year, because her savings for his tuition were insufficient.

At 54, Elizabeth McNulty also struggles to help three grown children. She said she was paying the price now for having taken time away from work as a young mother.

As a teaching assistant at a school for special needs children in West London, she has suffered the same pay freeze as Ms. Savage, and now has to take a £2,000 pay cut, meaning her annual salary is just £17,000.

Without a college degree, she said, she feels stuck in a field she chose years ago so she could be with her children during school holidays. Many colleagues are in the same position.

“We’re being penalized because we’re mums, and we wanted to take better care of our children,” she said in the soft lilt of her native west Ireland.

Now she fears the consequences will follow her into retirement.

Public-sector pensions are a point of major contention. Workers walked out of schools and hospitals in November in a nationwide strike over plans to increase employees’ contributions and raise retirement age, while reducing pension payments.

“I’m not going to be as independent when I’m older,” she said. “It’s almost like we’re going back, women are becoming more dependent on men now.”

Her co-worker Teresa Angeletta, 53, sees progress slipping away.

“It’s like when my mum would wait for my dad — he’d come home with his wages and put them on the table,” she recalled. “She didn’t have money of her own.”