This essay will trace through and discuss how the social ‘problem’ of poverty in general and women’s poverty in particular is shaped and defined within the paradigms of welfare state ideologies of neo-liberalism, neo-conservativism, social democracy and the third way. This essay will also discuss the social work response to women in poverty within different welfare ideologies. The latter part of this essay will critically examine New Labour’s Welfare to Work as a social policy response to poverty in general and its implications for women in poverty who also have caring responsibilities.

Brief definition of poverty

The modern concept of poverty was established by Rowntree (1941) who defined poverty in absolute terms, as something experienced by those living below a specified line. Currently the poverty line is set at 60% of median; the point at which means tested state support becomes available. This can be contrasted with the relative definition of poverty which is derived from the comparison of the standard of living between the poor and those in the majority of the society who are not poor. The two approaches to poverty differ in how they seek to define poverty.

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Absolute definitions, appeals to scientific and objective way of establishing levels of poverty. Whereas relative definition recognises the subjective element of judgement involved in determining poverty levels. Both definitions have their limitations, as absolute definitions require relative judgement and relative judgements will require ‘some absolute core’ to distinguish them from broader inequalities (Alcock, 1997). The tensions and limitations between the two definitions of poverty highlight the contest and contentious nature of poverty. As we shall see with women’s poverty, as a political word poverty tends to be circularly defined by different welfare ideologies and their policies claiming to solve the social ‘problem’ of poverty.

Poverty among women; the evidence

The press release by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) (2003) publicising their report on ‘Gender and Poverty in Britain’ (2003) calls for urgent government action ‘specifically to tackle women’s poverty’. In order to illuminate the gendered aspect of poverty, the report cites findings from Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey that suggests that women are more likely than men to be poor, ‘ on all four dimensions of poverty’ which consists of lacking in 2 or more necessities, earnings below 60% of the median income, subjective poverty and receiving of income support. Further evidence is provided Women’s Budget Group (WBG), an independent UK group that works to promote gender equality, states in its report Women and Children’s poverty that women are at a greater risk of poverty than men, but they are also likely to experience ‘recurrent and longer spells’. (Lister, 2005)

Hidden poverty of women; from Poverty to Social Exclusion

EOC’s (2003) report suggests that in comparison to men, 14% of women are more likely to live in low income households below the official measure of poverty. At the same time the report recognises that the reality of women living in poverty is much higher than what is reflected by the official statistics. The reports argue that women’s poverty is hidden because the official statistics which measures household income rather than individual’s income masks the fact that women have lower income and assets than men.

The fact that women’s poverty is hidden points to a much larger problem than that of poverty – but also one of social exclusion. Social exclusion is a ‘relational dynamic’ (Williams, 1998) and extends beyond class and distributional issues addressed by poverty. It provides a broader framework to understand the multi-dimensional disadvantages faced by women in poverty. (Barry, 1998) Women are socially excluded due to social relations of power and control within a patriarchal society and the resulting marginalisation and exclusion of women from full participation in the society they live in. We will return to this topic later on in this essay.

Women’s poverty through the history of welfare state

It can be argued that women’s poverty is a by-product of their experience of social exclusion. (However, it is important to bear in mind that social exclusion and poverty are not synonymous terms, as one does not necessarily lead to another.) The EOC’s (2003) report suggests that one of the main reasons why women face a greater risk of poverty is because the British social policy is based on the ‘out of touch’ assumption that women have a ‘man’s income to fall back on’. This is not a surprising revelation, as history tells us that the welfare state itself is predicated on the patriarchal ‘male bread-winner’ model of family. Beverage’s report (1942) which laid down some of the foundation for today’s welfare state, was based on the assumption that women would make ‘marriage their sole occupation’ (Beveridge, 1942). In other words, women would stay at home to do the housework and bring-up children. Men on the other hand, will go out to earn a living to provide for the family.

Beveridge’s assumption of the ‘natural’ caring responsibilities of women and their economic dependence on their husbands led him to exclude women from his social security proposals (Alcock, 1997) Thus, women were deprived of one of the most fundamental rights to welfare provision that is intended to protect one from poverty. Unfortunately, reality does not tally up with the assumptions made by Beveridge, as resources are not always equitably allocated within households as a women ‘rely on the discretion of her partner and is ill prepared should the partnership break-down’. (Lister, 2005)

Needless to say that the ‘male bread winner’ familial ideology is rooted in patriarchy and entrenched within the welfare state is strongly biased in favour of men at the expense of women’s rights and needs. Not only does it force women into dependency on men, by assuming a women’s role is to care, it restricts her life opportunities. By framing the women’s work within the private sphere of home, it strips its status as labour. (Thompson, 2001) On the other hand, men’s work in the public domain is considered worthwhile enough to be financially rewarded. Thus the gendered division between ‘paid and unpaid’ work emerges, where women’s work is denied equal status to that of a men.

As a result of this pervasive existence of inequality and sexism inherent to a patriarchal society, women’s experience is underpinned by the experience of oppression; which can be defined as ‘…..hardship and injustice brought about by dominance of one group over another; the negative and demeaning exercise of power’ (Thompson 2001). Some effects of oppression and inequality faced by women are poverty, powerless-nests, lack of rights, unmet needs and subjection to social control and second class citizenship. The life chances and opportunities of women living in poverty are severely restricted, excluding them from fully exercising their citizenship rights. Poverty is ‘corrosive’ to ‘human agency that lies at the heart of citizenship’. (Lister, 1998)

Alcock (1997) argues that the ‘male-bread winner’ model of family is a mythical characterisation that has never been grounded in reality. Even at the time of Beveridge’s post-war era reforms, women have been engaging in paid employment and this was crucial for keeping their families out of poverty. Since the time of Beveridge, women’s participation in labour market has steadily increased. However our current social polices have a long way to go to redress the historical inequalities and disadvantages faced by women within the labour market.

For an example, women generally occupy low paid, low security and gender biased jobs. We shall see later on, how even today these issues are still very relevant. Feminists have argued that the welfare needs and rights of women are largely ignored and have failed to be addressed within main stream social policy, in-advertly legitimising and adding to women’s experience of social exclusion and poverty. Within a male -dominated society women have indeed become ‘invisible’ and so have their experience of poverty.

The social problem of women’s poverty – across the welfare states

Old Labour Vs New Right

Levitas (2005) argues that the New Right of the 1980’s is wrongly misunderstood to be an exclusive neo-liberalist project but instead it consists of ‘apparently contradictory’ but ‘symbiotic strands of’ (Levitas, 2005) neo-liberalism and neo-conservativism. The economics of the neo-liberalist is firmly rooted in the belief that the best government will adopt a laissez faire approach to the market and the market is at its best when left alone. The market forces of demand and supply, will ensure consumer sovereignty and the markets will naturally work to protect individuals.

Under neo-liberalism, state intervention is to be kept to a minimum, while the profit maximising behaviour of the market is encouraged. The inequalities that arise within a profit driven economy are accepted and justified as an inevitable consequence of a profitable and efficient economic climate. In contrast to the neo-liberalist, neo conservatives are less concerned about freedom and choice in the market, but instead of order. They tend to focus on family, nation and morality. Under neo- conservativism, the state does have a role to play, but the role is limited to smoothing out problems arising from a predominantly market – based economy.

Poverty under the New Right

The neo liberalist’s response to poverty in general is shaped by their opposition to the welfare state; state intervention to provide public services is seen as interference in the ‘free’ workings of the market. Welfare state is considered to be economically inefficient, unproductive and curtails freedom of choice. Importantly, the welfare state is equated with a ‘perverse incentive’ that traps people from being self-sufficient. Thus, it is said to foster a culture of dependency and gives rise to an emergence of an ‘underclass’. The sentiment at the core of this ideology is captured by a statement made by the Conservative MP Rhodes Boyson who stated that the welfare state ‘saps the collective moral fibre of our people as a nation’, (Alcock, 1997).

Underlying this ideological stance is the implicit assumption about human nature as self seeking, and given the choice between work and benefits people will take the lazy option of staying on benefits. The neo-liberalist’s solution to poverty is to encourage self-sufficiency by reducing the incentive to stay on benefits and seek employment. This ideological response to poverty is reflected in the Thacherist government, which tightened eligibility for benefits and redefined poverty in the narrow absolute terms and claimed that poverty no longer existed in the England. (Levitas, 2005) Contrary to Thacher’s claim, unemployment and poverty rose considerably in the early 1980s. (Levitas, 2005)

Similarly, the neo-conservatives believe too much state intervention especially in the labour market is undesirable and a ‘drain on public expenditure’. (Alcock, 2003) They adopt a selective approach to poverty and target welfare support to those who have been positively identified as poor. (Alcock, 2003) Thus, a line is drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

Women’s poverty under New Right

The dual ideologies endorsed by the New Right embraces both the inequalities rising from a profit driven economy, as well as the traditional patriarchal ‘male bread winner’ model of family as desirable. Thus, women are doubly disadvantaged. The social policy response to poverty under this school thought, is to force men away from welfare dependency and into the labour market adopting a male breadwinner role and for the women to move off ‘benefits and into financially supportive marriage’. (Williams, 1998) Unpaid household work and caring done in the private sphere is ignored in the profit maximising state. Women who do not conform to the political ideologies of the New Right by rejecting the work ethic and a belief in marriage are considered to be engaging in ‘anti- social and anti-market’ (Williams, 1998) and ‘delinquent’ (Levitas, 2005) behaviour which manifests as ‘ sexual and reproductive behaviour, the imputed irresponsibility of lone parenthood’ (Levitas, 2005).

Within the political climate of New Right, in general women’s poverty is not seen as a ‘social problem’ but one of individual inadequacy and a failure to embrace the values of the dominant patriarchal values adopted by the New Right. Not only are women’s experience of poverty cast side but they are oppressed and marginalised.

Social Work under the New Right

A social worker working with female service users who are poor within the ‘normal’ and therefore desirable framework of family and divisions of labour as advocated by the New Right will necessarily be oppressive and discriminatory. The assessments undertaken and the consequent decisions made by a social worker who adopts such a stance will be made within the norms of the dominant patriarchal culture. An example of this is the social work practise that casts women into the domestic sphere of caring and housework, will legitimise the patriarchal political ideology of the New Right by getting women to ‘provide unpaid health and welfare services for members of their own family’ (Thompson, 2001) and restrict their life opportunities and add to their experience of poverty and social exclusion.

Social workers staying true to the New Right’s belief that poverty as a consequence of individual failure will work to further oppressive and stigmatise their female service users. In addition to this, social workers are also in danger of pathologising women by trying to locate the origins of poverty within a their individual psyche. Female service users who do not conform to the New Right’s familial ideology, may be helped/forced by a well-being social workers to adjust within the norms of sexist patriarchal society. Essentially a social work practice that does not seek to understand the gendered aspect to women’s poverty will legitimising as well as promote structures of inequality and oppression giving arise to the poverty in the first place. As argued by Thompson (2001) discriminatory or oppressive social work is itself a denial of women’s citizenship rights.

Social Democrats/Old Labour

In contrast to the New Right, the social democrats seek both economic growth and equality. Welfare state is seen as a crucial distributor of wealth and resources; instrumental in creating a socially just and equitable society within a capitalist market economy. In contrast to the selective state intervention endorsed by the New Right, social democrats propose universal welfare provision, progressive taxation, expansion of public services and active labour market programmes to encourage full employment.

Poverty under social democracy

In opposition to the absolute definition of poverty under New Right, a social democratic would usually define poverty in relative terms. Townsend, an influential commentator of poverty and a social democrat, defined poverty as an ‘objective condition of relative deprivation’ (Levitas, 2005) characterised by the inequality in the distribution of income in society. Townsend’s definition of poverty reframes poverty so that it extend beyond levels of income and includes resources necessary to participate in ‘ordinary living patterns, customs and activities’ customary to a particular society. In this way, Townsend’s definition of poverty is comparable to the concept of social exclusion discussed earlier in the essay.

Although, Townsend’s definition of poverty is not without its limitations, it does however highlight the multi-faceted aspect to poverty which cannot be defined entirely by monetary value. For an example, women living in poverty, suffer from the stigma attached to being poor, physical and mental heath problems resulting from the stress of poverty, limited life opportunities and all of which will contribute to their restricted citizenship rights. These intangible factors cannot be measured in monetary terms.

Thus, Townsend’s definition is particularly advantageous to women, because it provides a valuable shift from ‘income to resources, and from consumption to participation’ (Levitas, 2005) as relative deprivation includes social factors such as home-circumstances, working conditions, community integration and working conditions. Promisingly, Townsend’s broader definition in terms of relative deprivation does to some extend and encompass and respond to the gendered poverty and social exclusion experienced by women. For an example, Townsend’s recommendation of a benefit’s system that incorporates child care allowances as a matter of rights rather means tested, for an example has gone some way to recognise the unpaid work undertaken by women.

Social Work under the social democratic ideology

In comparison to the one under New Right, social work practise under social democratic ideology is likely to be more progressive and empowering. By broadening its critique of inequality beyond that of income levels it gives scope for social workers to target their intervention at many different levels such as by taking in to account the social factors that may contribute to women’s poverty. However, Thompson (2001 )argues there is no middle ground for social workers working within the values of anti-oppressive practise. They either actively address or challenge the inequality and oppression experienced by women in a patriarchal capitalist society or they work to re-enforce the existing inequalities and oppression. In this case, it remains dubious as to what extend social workers can work anti -oppressively within a social democratic framework which works within the capitalist system and does not necessarily seek to challenge it.

New Labour: The Third Way ideology

The critique of the left and right gave rise to the debate of whether complex social processes, social problems and organisations can be captured within the left/right dichotomies. It was felt, perhaps no single approach will adequately cater for the different welfare needs of all in all circumstances. Within this backdrop of disillusionment with the strictly left and right approaches, emerged New Labour’s third way. Third way claims to transcend the left-right dichotomies. It has been politically promoted by New Labour as a pragmatic approach to policy making and not a compromise between two discredited ideologies. Blair’s reforms included low taxation and inflation, welfare to work (typically associated with right wing policies) but also child benefit upgrades, provisions of free nursery places. (typically left wing policy approaches). Some of New Labour’s critics have accused the third way as ‘all things to all people’ and a poorly specified ‘pick and mix strategy’. (Powell, 1999).

New Labour and poverty

Under New Labour poverty and inequality have been replaced by a discourse on social exclusion. Some may argue that New Labour’s move away from the narrow concept of poverty and to social exclusion is a welcome relief. As suggested earlier on in the essay, social exclusion takes a broader perspective and seeks to understand the multi-dimensional disadvantages faced by those in the margins of society. But this not the case with the concept of social exclusion/inclusion adopted by New Labour.

A closer inspection of the New Labour’s discourse of social exclusion and policy response reveals that it is narrowly defined in terms of integration/lack of it into the labour market.(Levitas , 2005) New Labour’s policy responses deviate from old labour redistribution policies such as personal taxation typically associated with the left. Instead, it veers more to the right and accepts inequalities and social divisions within society. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow, as it did under the conservatives. (Levitas, 2005) As a result some critics of New Labour have argued that, the third way has more in common with the New Right than the left, (Novak) and when given the choice of profitability and human need, it leans decisively towards profitability. (Holden, 1999)

According to New Labour, the solution to poverty lies in increasing employment opportunities rather than benefit levels. The main function of social security policy is to increase employment. Thus ‘Welfare to Work’ is constructed by New Labour as the logical policy response to social exclusion and poverty. If New Right was primarily concerned with ‘welfare dependency’, New Labour can be said to ‘rebuild the welfare state, around work’. (Novak) Social inclusion is almost synonymous with undertaking paid work, as stated by Peter Mandelson paid work is ‘central to economic and moral integration’.

On the other hand, social exclusion is considered deviant anti-work ethic, life on the dole and ‘non-fulfilment of perceived obligations’ (Beresford and Wilson, 1998) Thus the dividing moral and economic line is drawn between those in paid work and those who are not; the citizens and the socially excluded. As for women, welfare to work as a solution to their poverty translates into their lives as doing two jobs; one in the labour market and the other at home. (Williams, 1998)

Welfare to work; A route out of poverty for women?

New Labour’s ‘de-gendered’ (Lister, 2005) approach to paid work as a route out of poverty does not challenges the inequalities faced by women in the labour market. The most likely consequence of increasing labour market participation without addressing the inequalities faced by women is that the inequalities will be ‘reproduced within the work place’. (Holden, 1999) In support of this argument, Women’s Budget Group (WBG) have highlighted that Welfare to Work as an anti-poverty strategy needs to be explicitly gendered, if it is to be successful. WBG suggest, contrary to what is currently on offer under New Labour, a gendered employment strategy will tackle head-on women’s disadvantages within the labour market. What this would mean in practise, is addressing issues of low pay, gender segregation, child care, inflexible hours and barriers faced by low-income mother who want to take up paid employment.

The WBG identified that one of the common barriers faced by mothers who wish to enter in to paid employment is a combination of low income, benefit trap and unaffordable child care. One mother’s wish to take up paid employment speaks of her experience at the job centre thus, ‘ I was told that because, I had very young children it wasn’t financially beneficial for me to go to work’. It is evident, for this mother Welfare to work is not a viable option out of poverty. WBG recommends universal child care services that is affordable, accessible and of quality. This will eliminate at least for some mothers the barriers to welfare to work.

WBG recognises that whilst paid work may be an important element in reducing women’s poverty, it is possible that on the other hand that some women may choose at certain points in their lives to prioritise their caring responsibilities over paid work. Paid work is not ‘a panacea’ (Lister, 2005) for women’s poverty. Therefore, financial support for those who are not in paid work is highlighted as being crucial by WBG. Briar (1996) adding strength to the proposal put forward by WBG, argues in support of a universal basic income (UBI).

She states that ‘work’ and ‘welfare’ should not be seen as mutually exclusive and a benefits system should provide ‘ a platform rather than a pit’ for those wishing to move on to paid employment. Irrespective of whether or not one is in employment, a UBI that provides an adequate living allowance will implicitly acknowledge the unpaid work done by women. (Briar,1996) The combination of paid work and welfare is the most effective way out of poverty for most women and Briar (1996) recommends that ‘UBI should be worked for alongside policies such as pay equity, affordable child care, equal opportunities and a shorter working week’.

An ideological shift; Caring in the third Way – A feminist perspective

New Labour’s stance on paid work as a route to social integration and its superiority over unpaid work has ‘significant and gendered repercussions’ (Levitas, 2005) for women’s citizenship status. Sevenhuijsen (2000) criticises the third way for failing to embrace ‘caring’ as an important human activity and suggests an alternative; ‘ caring in the third way’. Sevenhuijsen (2000) argues that the third way’s notion of ‘obligation’ which intends to bridge the gap between the individual and society is based on the assumption that the two stand in opposition to each other. Underlying this assumption is the ‘deep seated mistrust of its subject’ (Sevenhuijsen, 2000) which is usually typical of a right wing understanding of human nature.

Despite the third way’s wish to create new forms of solidarity and social cohesion, Sevenhuijsen (2000) argues that the third way is fundamentally informed by the neo-liberalist idea of a self-seeking and self -contained individual. The notion of care is absent in the third way’s concept of inclusion or inclusive citizenship thus casting women ‘to the bottom of our society’. Citizenship is primarily presented in terms of opportunities and access to work. Thus the questionable line between those who can and cannot is work drawn, perpetuating the inequalities within the divisions of labour and adding to women’s second class citizenship status.

The care framework, on the other hand, starts from the premise of mutual interdependence between self and other and is characterised by a relational ontology, ‘ individuals can only exist because they are members of various networks of care and responsibility, for good for bad’. (Sevenhuijsen,2000). The feminist ethic of care is grounded in the firm belief that caring is a given and not an obligation to be derived from rights as suggested by the third way.

Caring done by women will not be confined to private interactions but will be valued as a public virtue. Social policies will acknowledge and respond to the valuable caring work carried out by women in society and embrace values of ‘attentiveness and responsibilities in creating humane relationships in daily social interactions’. (Sevenhuijsen,2000) Women’s wish to combine paid work with caring responsibilities or indeed prioritise child care over paid work needs to be valued and supported as a valuable human practise.

Sevenhuijsen (2000) recommends that social policies should function to support and address several aspects of one’s life. She suggests that the ‘independent wage earning citizen’ as the ideal of social participation and citizenship needs to be replaced with one that includes caring as integral to inclusive citizenship. Thus, the feminist care framework, restores the caring work done by women to its rightful place – one that is fundamental to human existence and therefore the foundation for citizenship.

Concluding thoughts:

We have seen throughout the essay how the social problem of women’s poverty have come to be shaped and defined by the welfare state ideologies. In the process, women in poverty have been stigmatised, marginalised and stripped of their citizenship rights. At the same, we have also seen how social workers who are in the profession of ‘helping’ women poverty, can also do much to further oppress female service users.

Looking forwards: Women’s poverty and progressive social work practise

As it has been illustrated so far, that within social work the line between social care and social control is a very thin one indeed. A progressive social work practise will recognise that the institution of social care is itself based on the shaky grounds of inequality and oppression within a dominant patriarchal society. One of the first steps towards empowerment rather than ‘adjustment'(Thompson, 2001) is becoming aware and then challenging social work practise that ‘objectifies’ (Beresford et al ,1998) women in poverty, by making them social work cases to be worked on, requiring paternalistic social work intervention. A progressive and inclusive social work practise will be grounded on the premise of partnership, where service users are viewed and treated as equal citizens. (Lister, 1998)

A key element of citizenship is participation. This begs the question as raised by Beresford ; Wilson (1998), ‘ If the aim is to address, indeed challenge, social exclusion, then is there not a fundamental problem if those included in the category are not fully included in the discussion about it?’ Social workers have a valuable role to play in this process. By providing a forum through channels such as women’s groups or participation panels, service user’s consultations, women in poverty can voice and challenge social work practises and policies rooted in the patriarchal values or those that do not meet their needs.


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