Unpacking the Women’s Economic Security Statement

We have worked with the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) to produce this analysis of the Women’s Economic Security Statement. 

As the dust settles on the inaugural Women’s Economic Security Statement (WESS), we’ve taken a closer look at the Statement, in particular the workforce participation and economic independence pillars, and what it means for women’s economic justice in Australia.

We are grateful to the many feminist organisations and commentators who have analysed the statement  and will hyperlink to this work throughout.

The WESS comprises $109 million over four years to fund a series of initiatives related to women’s workforce participation, economic independence and “earnings potential” (which look to be measures to boost entrepreneurial endeavours). Women’s economic inequality imposes a significant cost on women and the community at large and is an underlying driver of gender-based violence. And yet, women’s work underpins so much economic activity. In Victoria alone, women’s unpaid work has been economically valued at $205 billion a year. At approximately $27 million a year, the investment is modest given the size of women’s economic inequality. However, the WESS represents a much needed budgetary and political focus on gendered economic inequality.

The WESS represents a much needed budgetary and political focus on gendered economic inequality.

A Much-Needed Point of Focus for Women

With few new large-scale initiatives on violence against women at the national level there has recently been a vacuum around Federal gender equality policy. This is particularly the case with the Budget, with the Women’s Budget Statement, flawed as it was, last delivered in 2014. Without this, there has been no formal Government mechanisms to spotlight, deliver and be held to account on gender equality policy and progress.

Resembling a women’s “mini-budget”, the WESS draws much-needed focus but the challenge will be to integrate gender concerns into the mainstream Budget. The WESS is a valuable process but would be strengthened by ensuring gender analysis is infused across the entire Budget process. The effect otherwise could be to quarantine gender initiatives in a way that artificially separates them from the rest of the Budget. Further, into the future, the WESS should report on women’s economic status (including rates of poverty, time spent in unpaid work, rates of housing stress etc) and progress against a developed set of gender indicators (informed by the SDGs). This is what could ensure greater accountability for Government responsibilities to address gender inequalities.

Expanding gender in the Budget from the initiatives listed in the WESS to the revenue and expenditure measures across the whole scope of the Budget requires a comprehensive renovation of the Budget cycle to ensure that gender impacts are both analysed and prioritised. (ERA is soon releasing a paper on how Australia can do this, so watch this space!). Presently, gendered biases operate, with little scrutiny, to shape Budget processes and decisions. Gender-responsive budgeting is a critical tool to interrogate and transform this.

Pillar One- Increasing Women’s Workforce Participation

 If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it

There is a solid and welcome data component to this pillar which includes an additional $8 million for the world-leading work of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) to upgrade their data collection systems. This upgrade has the potential to increase WGEA’s coverage to 75% of the Australian workforce. And, vitally, the time-use survey has been reinstated. Time-use data will be collected in 2020-21 for the first time since 2006 (an unacceptable gap). While the WESS indicates that following the initial survey there will be a “smaller ongoing annual survey that will build up the evidence base over time” it is not clear at this stage how this would differ from conducting the full survey every 6 years (as suggested by Good Shepherd here). We do know that a commitment to ongoing funding for the survey is critical as the last several years have shown it is extremely vulnerable when cuts to the ABS are made by Governments. You can read more about the importance of the time-use survey in our piece for Broad Agenda here.

Both data initiatives demonstrate a commitment to building a robust gender evidence-base. However, there remains an intersectionality gap in Australia’s growing gender data base.  The Government would do well to invest in increasing intersectional data on economic security and wellbeing to strengthen the evidence base on how women facing multiple and intersecting disadvantage are located in the economy. Moreover, the trick with all of this is to ensure that it forms the basis of future policy development.

Greater Flexibility in Paid Parental Leave (PPL)

Two important changes to PPL will enhance the accessibility of the scheme while keeping the Government scheme, as is, largely intact.

Parents will be able to split their 18 weeks up into different blocks over the first 2 years, rather than taking 18 weeks straight after the birth or adoption. The Government has identified about 2300 people returning to work before their full 18 weeks and then losing the rest of their Government PPL time every year.

Additionally, the work-test rules have been loosened so that new parents won’t have to have worked the 330 hours in ten of the prior 13 months. This no doubt reflects the reality of many women’s part-time and casual working lives.

Increasing accessibility should clear the path for more structural reforms to the scheme itself. At 18 weeks of the minimum wage and without superannuation, the scheme continues to fall short. As the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW) point out, a 26 week minimum is the next big reform needed for the Government scheme and the addition of superannuation would line up with previous Productivity Commission recommendations.

In this way, the PPL changes are emblematic of this first WESS –they are important, technical adjustments that will have an impact, but fundamentally sidestep the bold, important reforms required to restructure our working lives in a more gender-responsive way.

One of the key challenges in strengthening women’s economic security is changing the way men work. As the next time-use survey will no doubt reveal, women are still conducting the lion’s share of unpaid work. We have to accept that women aren’t working part-time, they’re paid for just part of their work.  PPL actually offers a critical opportunity to reorganise this.

Approximately 75% of dads and partners take leave after the birth of a child and only a third of eligible fathers and partners access Dad and Partner Pay (DAPP). According to the 2014 Paid Parental Leave scheme evaluation, the introduction of DAPP “did not lead to an increase in the overall proportion of fathers taking leave in the first six months following the birth of a child, but it did slightly increase the average length of leave taken by all fathers in the first two months after a birth and change the composition of leave taken.” Co-parents in Australia who do take DAPP are taking an average of just over 12 days leave.  WGEA’s examination of the gender balanced parental leave schemes shows that high payments for parental leave and flexibility in when the leave is taken encourage more men take more leave. Sweden’s use or lose scheme offers co-parents 60 days that are not able to be transferred to another parent, a similar scheme is in place in Iceland. Denmark’s scheme enables shared leave of 32 weeks which can be taken concurrently or independently by both parents.

Outside of the Government scheme, recent WGEA data indicates that still only less than 50% of employers provide access to work PPL (in addition to the Government scheme). This signals a large proportion of the workforce for which the Government scheme is the only option and for which 18 weeks will have to do  (despite 26 weeks recommended by the World Health Organisation). Industrial frameworks need to be re-examined to facilitate PPL as a workplace entitlement, including looking at the National Employment Standards and the Fair Work Act more broadly.

Other initiatives in this pillar include: the establishment of a forum on reducing barriers to work, supporting regional employers to attract and retain women returning to work after a career break and scholarships for women in economics and finance.

 What’s missing?

The WESS coincides with the Future of Employment Services consultation but the two remain disconnected. A growing body of research points to the gender obliviousness of the employment services system and the relatively small scale of gender-specific programs and providers. For example, for women who have experienced domestic and family violence, employment providers need to recognise these specific needs and experiences. The recent Outside Systems Control My Life report from Good Shepherd has found that Australia’s employment services system and the concomitant Welfare to Work policy framework “does not consider the barriers that single mothers face in obtaining employment, such as lack of child care and the availability of quality part-time roles.” The report recommends an overhaul of the system to do away with the compliance and punitive measures and develop a tailored, people-centred approach.

Effective marginal tax rates are frequently cited as a barrier to women’s participation in the paid workforce. Secondary earners and sole parents are two of the groups most impacted by high effective marginal tax rates (EMTRs) and women make up a large proportion of both groups. Effective marginal tax rates are a function of the interaction of the tax and transfer systems. As the Productivity Commission describes, EMTRs “measure how much money a person would retain from earning an extra dollar after income tax and the loss of welfare benefits”. The combination of ordinary tax rates with the loss of transfer payments (such as family tax benefits and income support), as well as the costs of child care, coalesce to create high effective marginal tax rates. For both secondary earners and sole parents with children under school age, high EMTRs are produced because of the cumulative impact of family tax benefits, income support and child care subsidies. The result is diminishing returns on additional hours and days worked and thus high EMTRs are a disincentive to full-time paid work.  This is an issue for which there is no easy fix, however, the modelling and data to test policy and tax decisions on EMTRs for different groups is available within Government. It is a matter of ensuring that policy objectives to address EMTRs as a barrier for women’s workforce participation are prioritised.

Finally, the availability and affordability of appropriate housing is a key enabler for women’s workforce participation. And there is nothing specific on delivering women’s housing in this WESS. As the National Foundation for Australian Women put it in their 2018-19 Gender Lens on the Budget: “no woman can be economically secure without affordable, accessible housing.” This is an area that desperately needs whole of Government action.

Pillar Two- Measures to Support Women’s Economic Independence

This pillar makes clear the link between domestic and family violence and women’s economic security and wellbeing. This is an important link for Governments to recognise and grapple with and crystallises the complex and reinforcing relationships between different areas of women’s disadvantage. This is a first step for the Federal Government in recognising that adequately addressing women’s economic disempowerment requires action across a whole suite of gender relevant policies, particularly gender-based violence. At $35.6 million over the forward estimates, this pillar will introduce an additional $8.9 million annually for the measures.

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Safety First in Family Law

This will see $7 million of new ongoing funding for legal aid commissions to ensure victims and survivors of family violence are appropriately protected from direct cross-examination by their perpetrators in family law matters;

After the recent passage of legislation banning direct cross-examination, following Women’s Legal Services Australia’s steadfast campaigning, funding to properly implement this measure is welcome. However, a larger existential threat looms with the proposed merger of the Federal and Family Court systems pushed by the Federal Government. These reforms are being pursued without adequate consideration for how they will impact on the safety of victims/survivors of family violence and their children.

 Small Claims, Large Battles

This set of measures includes:

  • improving the visibility of superannuation assets in family law proceedings;
  • providing family law property mediation;
  • establishing a new Small Claims Property pilots program,

which will effect important administrative and technical changes to make the family law system more responsive to women’s experiences of family and domestic violence and ensuing economic insecurity. The Women’s Legal Services Victoria report, Small Claims – Large Battles, found that 87% of their respondents involved in small claims had experienced family violence  and 84% had experienced economic abuse. Fundamentally, the “cost of private legal representation often outweighs projects settlement amounts in small property matters” and the system imposes a number of barriers to pursuing superannuation claims.  As WLSV reveals “many women are simply walking away from their entitlement to a fair division of property.” These measures have been developed from recommendations from the Small Claims –Large Battles report.

As AWAVA articulated in their submission on the family law review: The impacts of family violence are not adequately taken into account in property settlements. Family violence is not specifically identified as a relevant consideration in property matters in the Family Law Act. While case law exists, this is not always considered in determining the adjustment in a negotiation, which is the way most matters are finalised. As a result, women who have been subjected to domestic violence may have their actual contributions reflected unfairly. The court must take into account additional factors based on the future needs of the parties, including their age, health, income, property, financial resources, and capacity for gainful employment and having care of children. There should be a legislative requirement for the court to consider the impact of family violence when determining a property division, as proposed in the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recent discussion paper as part of the review of the family law system.

Women Pay the Price

The move to enable early access to superannuation for victims and survivors of domestic and family violence has been met with widespread concern. The implications of this measure are an individualising or privatising of a largescale social problem, of which the Government is responsible for addressing. As YWCA Australia asks: should women bear the financial burden of gender inequality? See the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance’s advocacy on this matter which draws attention to the negative implications for both women and women’s services:

“The choices open to women to pursue lives free of violence, abuse and control are structured by their access to resources and their autonomy with regard to how those resources are used. Measures to alleviate hardship and provide financial support at critical points, such as attempts to establish a household separate from an abusive partner, must therefore be pursued in a way that does not exacerbate economic gender inequality overall, or contribute to victims’/survivors’ economic disempowerment and poverty across their life-course… This approach is also inherently regressive, in that it would increase inequality by making the capacity to build a life free of violence even more dependent on personal wealth and income.”

And…

“We are concerned that broadening and normalising the use of personal savings (in this case, superannuation) as a way to meet the needs of women facing violence would further entrench the structural under-resourcing of the women’s service sector.”

No Interest Loans Scheme

In addition, the package includes funding for the Good Shepherd Microfinance No Interest Loans Scheme (NILS), providing loans for essential items for victims and survivors who are excluded from mainstream banking. The loans have been reshaped to be more responsive to the experiences of people who are building lives free from violence. To this end, the money available has been lifted from $1500 to $2000 and money can be spent on bond and rent (unlike other NILS). This makes sense given 66% of Flexible Support Package (FSP) funds have so far been used for safety and security, of which housing is included.  It is worth noting that the average cost of a Victorian FSP is $2676. Overall, this is a further indication that broader changes to  improve access to affordable housing would greatly alleviate the financial stress on victims/survivors, as well as the need for other forms of financial support.

On this note, NILS enables financial autonomy for women, but must be complemented by adequate funding for domestic and family violence service provision as well.  Any scheme addressing the needs of victims/survivors must be delivered through an integrated service response which is competent and specialised, and opens the way for support in areas such as housing, counselling and legal assistance.

It is important to alleviate hardship and provide financial support at critical points for victims/survivors, but these responses need to be grounded in human rights principles and be effective in meeting the needs of people with diverse and multiple experiences of poverty and disempowerment. There are concerns that relying on loans and retirement savings could mean that the economic impacts of violence may be redistributed across an individual’s lifetime but not substantially alleviated overall.

Schemes such as NILS have a role and are welcome, but we need to be working towards finance that does not need to be repaid. This includes: access to dedicated payments for people facing family violence, like the Victorian Flexible Support Package; adequate income support generally (including Newstart and Parenting Payments, as well as crisis payments) and income from employment (requiring all the relevant support – including better, non-punitive job search assistance, affordable & accessible quality childcare, and paid DV leave). These forms of support should not be seen as exclusive but designed to overlap, in order to respond to the diversity of situations and extreme hardships faced by women and children trying to build lives free of violence.

Supporting Vital Partnerships for Financial Safety

There is future funding certainty for 14 Specialist Domestic Violence Units and 5 Health Justice Partnerships, including for financial support services. The National Association for Community Legal Centres (NACLC) has welcomed this move while pressing the need to roll this program out nationally.

NACLC provides more information on the specialist and intensive work of these legal initiatives in this media release.

What’s missing?

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The links between violence and money for women are multi-layered and complex and indeed replicated in some areas of Government policy, namely the social security system. As Susan Maury from Good Shepherd has pointed out – increasingly punitive, restrictive, coercive and micro-management tactics within welfare policy resemble economic abuse.

Moreover, the National Social Security Rights Network has recently released How well does Australia’s social security system support victims of family and domestic violence?a report detailing the administrative, systemic, structural and policy barriers in Centrelink for victims and survivors of domestic and family violence. The Government could improve income support system responsiveness to domestic and family violence by implementing the recommendations of this report. The recommendations relate to the presumption of shared income among members of a couple, the need to increase eligibility and rates of crisis payments, the newly arrived residents waiting periods, debt accrual and repayment and the overall inadequacy of social security payments which is a barrier to ending a violent relationship and securing accommodation to leave.

In fact the WESS skirts the whole issue of the gendered shape of poverty.

A November report from the Victorian Council of Social Services found that 54.1% of people living in poverty in Victoria are women. Undoubtedly the most direct lever for the Federal Government to address this is through income support payments, namely Newstart. The 2018 ACOSS Poverty in Australia Report found that more than half of Newstart recipients are experiencing poverty. Poverty rates need to be a key component in the decisions around setting income support rates. Women make up half of people in receipt of Newstart and 65% of the one fifth of Newstart recipients reporting employment earnings (data commissioned by ERA from the Department of Social Services in 2018). This shows that women Newstart is a crucial supplement for the low income, part-time and casual work that women are over-represented in.

Moreover, with just under a third of all single parent households living in poverty, it is past time to reinstate the Single Parenting Payment (SPP) for single parents whose youngest child is up to 16 years old. Ninety-five per cent of people in receipt of the SPP are women. As the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children highlights, Newstart is not a payment that is structured for sole parent families. The single parenting payment recognises the care work of single parenting and the competing demands of paid work and unpaid work single parents contend with.

Pillar 3 – Measures to boost women’s earning potential

Pillar three focuses on supporting women’s entrepreneurialism and innovation. We’ll be taking a closer look at how Governments can support women to start their own businesses as part of our National Plan work (watch this space). In the meantime, you can read more about the Government’s measures here, they include:

  • an expansion of the Curious Minds program
  • establishing a Future Female Entrepreneurs program in partnership with the private sector
  • creating a new grants programs, Bosting Female Founders, to ensure women can access the finance they need to achieve their entrepreneurial goals

Wrapping Up

 An Intersectional Approach is Needed

Overall, an intersectional analysis, which recognises that gender is one component of economic disempowerment, is sorely lacking in this WESS. There are no specific initiatives for women and people facing multiple and intersecting disadvantage, whose economic marginalisation is compounded. For example:

Indeed, the Harmony Alliance has welcomed the WESS but pointed out the distinct lack of initiatives specifically for migrant and refugee women:

The Alliance has, however, noted the need for an additional focus on the circumstances of women from migrant and refugee backgrounds…

Women from migrant and refugee backgrounds continue to face higher unemployment rates and lower labour force participation rates than non-migrant women.

“The valuable skills that women from migrant and refugee backgrounds bring to the workplace often do not receive the recognition they deserve. Data must be disaggregated and programs tailored, in order to ensure that women from migrant and refugee backgrounds are included at the core of these reforms.”

Where to from here?

Specific initiatives such as the ones contained in the WESS are vitally important but will always form a modest component of the Budget. Women’s economic security is not so much about the $27 million a year here, but about the $464 billion that forms the Government’s total Budget. Because how that money is both collected and expended is deeply gendered. This is why a gender responsive budget, which infuses gendered analysis of policy into the Budget decision-making process in order to advance equality, is critical.

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