Numbers are staggering. Recovery needs women. So what's the plan?

The numbers are staggering. The recovery needs women. Where’s the plan to make it happen?


So the economic outlook is not good: with a $184.5 billion budget deficit this financial year and unemployment expected to peak at 9.25 per cent by Christmas, figures announced by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Thursday.

But what’s worse is the continued lack of targeted measures that could minimise the already disproportional impact of the economic-fallout of the COVID-19 Pandemic on women.

And the thing that would really stings? Missing an opportunity to reset the economy into one that positions women as key to growth.

Unfortunately, that’s looking increasingly unlikely to happen.

We’ve written extensively about how this recession is different to other recessions in that women are being hit harder than men, losing jobs and hours at a higher rate, while also facing an increase in unpaid work. We’ve also noted how male-dominated industries are being favoured for targetted support measures over those that employ more women, and have continued to raise concerns about the crisis facing the childcare sector.

We’ve called it a She-cession and a Mum-cession, given the added impact on women with children — and that was well before Victoria’s second lockdown period, that will again see women take on the bulk of the remote learning with some seeing no other option but to step back from their paid work to cope with added responsibilities at home.

With significant unemployment now and ahead, and a need for stimulus, now is the opportunity to get the spending right: to not only ensure that the impacts of the ‘She-cession’ are minimised, but also to position women as key to the economic recovery ahead.

So what are we going to do about it? So far, very little, it seems. Indeed, the plans already outlined are problematic — and the likely additional plans, such as bringing forward income tax cuts that will ultimately incentivize and benefit already high-income earners — look set to disadvantage women further.

Ross Gittins has written brilliantly on this very issue this week, and specifically looks at how Prime Minister Scott Morrison might consider it a “nice idea” to bring forward either the second or third stages of tax cuts that were promised in last year’s budget (currently they are legislated to take effect in July 2022 and July 2024), justifying earlier cuts off the idea that they will provide incentives for people to invest and work in the coming years.

But this “nice idea”, says Gittins, becomes a lot nicer from the perspective of a well-paid male. It may motivate high-income earners to work harder, but what will it do for women working part time, and for women who will only see a benefit of about 1 cent in the dollar?

Then there are the tax disincentives that impact “secondary earners” in a household, who continue to be majority female, and especially mothers.

A better idea, shared in the final paragraph of Gittins’ piece, would be to make the emergency measures put in place to support childcare earlier this year, permanent. “It would cost a lot less than his tax cuts for high mainly male) income-earners,” he rights.

Meanwhile, any conversation on women and the recession must also consider how many women are already in poverty or risk poverty ahead. It must especially consider women’s economic security into retirement, an issue I don’t believe this Government has mentioned once during the current crisis. Well before the pandemic, older women were already the fastest growing cohort of homelessness in Australia, and we know the stats on retirement savings: with women already retiring with half the savings of men.

Too many women lost out on access to the JobKeeper support payment, given casuals with less than one year at their current employer were deemed ineligible. This means women not only missed the payment, but may have also lost the opportunity to remain ‘connected’ to their employer — which was one of the key intended outcomes of the program.

Now when it comes to the alternate JobSeeker payment for those who are out of work and unable to receive JobKeeper, we’ve got some early analysis on what the $150 a week cut to the coronavirus supplement will mean for Australians.

The cut was announced this week, and granted it does come as the Morrison Government announced that JobSeeker will be extended beyond its late September cut-off date until the end of the year.

But according to the Australia Institute, the cut to the payment will see 370,000 Australians plunged into poverty, including 80,000 children. The numbers will no doubt be even worse, if the Morrison Government does cut the coronovirus supplement altogether on 31 December — which would be months ahead of the end of the JobKeeper payment.

Meanwhile, those on JobSeeker will be expected to recommence their ‘mutual obligations’ as of the 4th August, which will include accepting a job if it is offered, and proving they have applied for at least four jobs a month. That part of the announcement — when Australia’s second largest city remains in lockdown and there are 13 jobseekers for every job vacancy im Australia right now — seems politically opportunistic and excessively cruel.

As for those on JobKeeper, we saw this week how a two-tiered system will commence from October, with those deemed to be working ‘part time’ or less than 20 hours a week to receive around half the already reduced payment of those working ‘full time.’ Yes, this is designed to minimise the financial windfalls that, say, teenagers may have received for their Sunday morning job at the local cafe, but I do question if these changes will see employers prioritise the futures of their full time staff over their part time staff.

Even in ‘normal’ times, women’s economic needs should be given special consideration. As Tanja Kovac wrote for us on Budget Day last year, “We need a gender responsive budget, a gender responsive treasury and we need it yesterday.” Australia did this once, becoming the first country in the world to develop a ‘Women’s Budget Statement’ in the eighties. The idea was abandoned in 2014, during the Abbott Government.

Now we find ourselves in far from normal times, in a situation that’s seeing disadvantages for women widen — and we’re fast losing our once-in-a-generation opportunity to completely reset the economy to position women as essential to recovery.

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