speri.comment: the political economy blog

Inequality Redux VI

The intersectional consequences of austerity

Daniela Tepe-Belfrage, Faculty Research Fellow, Social Sciences, University of Sheffield

DanielaThis post looks at the intersections of different expressions of inequality and their interlinkages.  It makes the argument that reducing inequality to one of its expresssions, for example income or class, falls short both of understanding how poverty is created and of providing answers as to how to address it.  Intersectional analysis, in contrast, takes as a starting-point the lived experience of inequality, domination, power, discrimination and oppression and aims to contribute to the overcoming of the consequences.

Inequality is at heart intersectional.  What does this mean?  Intersectionality is the understanding that inequality, oppression, power, domination and discrimination have different forms and that we need to study their intersections and, in particular, the way in which these contribute to multiple and reinforcing patterns of inequality.  In other words, to reduce inequality to any one of its forms or to observe inequality simply through aggregate statistical measures serves to obscure its many social manifestations and, above all, what is perhaps best called the ‘lived experience’ of inequality.

Understood in this way, intersectional analysis can help us to understand better and then to begin to counter the damaging effects of the global financial and economic crisis and the negative consequences of austerity policy responses for the lived reality of ordinary people.

As has been recognised in the previous posts in this series, inequality is not a new phenomenon that suddenly arose as a result of the crisis.  Rather, in its historically concrete form it is based on interconnected inequalities that have generally run along different axes, such as gender, class, age, sexuality, ability and/or race.  Yet class and income remain the most common lenses through which to understand inequality and have been popularised once again by Thomas Piketty’s recent intervention.

Unfortunately, these remain the only lenses for many political economy approaches.  As Zillah Eistenstein has argued in a critique of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, political economy often ‘reads as though labor has no actual body – no home that actually creates it. It remains abstract and therefore colorless as in white, and sexless as in male.’  Yet, to take just one example, gendered inequality is quite easy to detect when studying work and inequality.  But it nevertheless remains largely unrecognised in work such as Piketty’s.  Indeed, when looking at income and wealth inequality, which has clearly grown since the 1970s, both the hidden and well-established structures of gendered inequality between paid and unpaid work and the gendered structures of inherited wealth should surely appear at the forefront of ‘critical’ analysis.

The lived experience of racial inequality is similarly overlooked in studies of work.  For example, the number of long-term unemployed young people from black, Asian or minority ethnic communities in the UK has risen by 49% since 2010, compared with the 2% fall experienced by white young people.  Or, as research at the University of Essex has shown, the gap between Britain’s white workers and those from ethnic minorities doubled in the 15 years leading up to 2008.  What’s more, the crisis has significantly widened this gap.

Recent developments have increased other levels of inequality too. With the crisis, some violent expressions of inequality have come directly to the surface.  To give an example, in 2011-12 the number of people sleeping rough rose by 23% in England and by a staggering 43% in London.  Another example is the explosive growth in the number of food-banks that have come into existence all over the country.  There is no doubt that class and/or income analysis are obvious ways to illustrate inequality, providing a stark account of who loses and who wins.

But, to reiterate Zilla Eisenstein’s question, do these people not have a body?   We need to ask the question differently: who is affected and to what extent?  Class-based analyses of the impact of the crisis can only ever give a partial picture and they are thus partly complicit in obscuring the intersectionality of inequality.

We know that women have been hit disproportionally by the crisis.  For instance, the UK Women’s Budget Group has shown that the largest drop in disposable income since the crisis has been experienced by women.  Women are also more likely to be employed in the public sector or be subcontracted to the state via private-sector organisations (for example, in the form of cleaners or carers).  As the UK’s austerity policy regime has especially targetted public services, women have been particularly affected, facing wage drops and job losses.  Austerity also has a ‘double-impact’ on women as, by virtue of being disproportionally in caring roles, they tend to be more likely to depend on the public provision of social services such as childcare services or care provision.

Using an intersectional lens helps us to see which women have actually been affected the most.  The figures show that they are predominantly lone mothers, single women, women with disabilities and women aged between 50 and 64.  Most of these women are responsible for unpaid care responsibilities for children, elderly people and/or children or adults with disabilities.  Furthermore, as public services that support these unpaid caring roles are cut financially, it is, by default, these very same women who ‘pick up the tab’, increasing the ‘double burden’.

Similarly, there is evidence that women from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have again been disproportionally affected by the crisis and subsequent austerity policies.  As a University of Warwick study has shown, ‘BAME women are more likely to live in poverty… unemployment is higher for all groups of BAME women than among white women … BAME women as a whole are more likely to report ill health and experience ill health earlier than white British people’.  For BAME women, ‘taken together, the combined impact of job losses and cuts to spending on welfare benefits, education, health, social care, legal aid and voluntary services will exacerbate existing inequalities between BAME women and other groups and pose a serious risk to some BAME women’s human rights’.

To sum up, inequality is not reducible to singular aspects of socio-economic identity.  Rather, it is only through intersectional analysis that we can understand how different forms of inequality intersect, who it is that is actually affected and ultimately how poverty is created.  This constitutes a clear challenge to political economy approaches that reduce inequality to single dynamics.  Such explanations necessarily fall short of addressing the multiple causes and consequences of inequality.  Intersectional analysis suggests different solutions, taking as its preferred starting-point the lived experience of domination, power, discrimination and oppression.

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