Will the new federal budget put more pressure on women?

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“Every Australian is going to be asked to contribute to the budget repair”, Treasurer Joe Hockey said recently. But are women being asked to contribute more than men?

The Abbott government will deliver its first budget on May 13 this year. The budget is expected to include a range of cost-cutting measures with welfare, health, education, disability and carers all in its sights. If Treasurer Joe Hockey releases his Commission of Audit report, as he is rumoured to be doing this week, we will get a better feel for just how serious the austerity measures could be. There will be a lot of justification for such measures, but what the government won’t be talking about is how austerity policies disproportionately hurt women.

This government made reducing the level of government debt its central focus and is planning to achieve that by curbing public expenditure. That will impact women in a number of ways. For starters, a greater proportion of women are employed in the public sector. Typically, women’s employment has been shielded from the worst of economic downturns because it is male dominated industries like construction that are most affected by the business cycle. But the increasing popularity of austerity measures means the public sector is now being squeezed during the downturns.

In the case of women working in the public sector this means a combination of pay and recruitment freezes, coupled with a loss of entitlements and redundancies. The welfare sector, particularly, employs significantly more women than other sectors and is forecast to be among the heaviest hit. You could mount an argument that where there are service inefficiencies or redundant skills these should be cleaved from the public burden regardless of implications for a woman’s job. For the greater good, you might say.

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Sure, though it’s an interesting argument when you consider workers in the welfare sector are poorly rewarded financially and are constantly derided for being supposedly unable to make it in the private sector, and yet they stick with these jobs out of a strong commitment of their own to the greater good. And it is also interesting to note in these arguments that both the welfare state and the public service are seen as the ‘feminised’ side of the economy. It is probably no coincidence then that this sector is described as weak, spoiling and expensive and in need of control and discipline.    

But it is not just as providers of welfare services that women are likely to be hurt by the federal budget, it is also as users of those services. Women are the bigger clients of welfare services because women do so much more of the unpaid care work in our community. Raising children, but also care of the sick, elderly, traumatised and disabled falls mostly to women in families. This kind of behind the scenes care work is what maintains and replenishes the supply of workers to industry. The truth is, women keep capitalism upright.

But hours and hours of this work are vanished when we decide how to distribute the rewards of production. And what’s even worse than not being compensated for it is that unpaid care work actually costs the women who perform it. But as long as unpaid care work remains invisible it won’t be properly considered in the design of taxes nor in the reshaping of services.  

This is where the lack of women appointed to Abbott’s Cabinet really hurts. Women need to be in decision making positions so that our experiences as both producers and carers in the economy are represented. Some will say Abbott’s progressive parental leave scheme demonstrates the prime minister’s consideration of women and their caring responsibilities. But I wonder, as I did at the time of its announcement, what was the opportunity cost of this expensive policy? What could we have bought instead?

Budgets will always involve trade-offs and difficult choices, but if care work was seen more as a capital investment and less as an expenditure then national decision making would shift considerably. We would see clearly the lack of resources provided to it. We would see something else, too. Not just that women carry more of the burden for providing this vital work but that certain groups of women are more disadvantaged than others by it. Fiscal policy would have to consider that the spread of unpaid work is not just uneven within families but across families, too. Income inequality creates pressure that fuels a ‘just take care of your own family’ mentality. And this prevents us from unifying around political solutions like pooling risk and redistributing income. Ultimately, inequality breeds more inequality.   

We need a better form of economic management and it hinges on a more inclusive approach to government budgets. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if the forthcoming budget puts more pressure on women, as both paid and unpaid workers, while scolding us about entitlement.