How we can counter a system that shuts out women suffering economic hardship

September 18, 2016

18 September 2017

By Katelijne Lenaerts

We often hear, “it’s the little things that matter”, those little daily details that can be the difference between our lives being just bearable and being pleasurable.

And perhaps the older you get, the more this becomes true.

You might need someone to help you up some stairs, across the road, or to carry something.  It’s also at this time of your life that a little extra cash might make a real difference to your quality of life, the difference between having a bit of jam on your toast in the morning, rather than just eating in plain.

But it’s just at this time of life that many Australians are also having to make these daily small decisions just to keep their heads above water.

One third of older women in Australia live in permanent income poverty. Social and structural factors contribute to older women being particularly vulnerable to financial hardship. While a lack of appropriate employment services, pervasive age and gender discrimination, domestic violence, family breakdown, and interrupted careers due to child-raising and other caring responsibilities, also contribute. Added to this is a superannuation system that came too late for some, and systematically results in worse outcomes for women.

I recently got a glimpse into this world of daily small decisions driven by real economic hardship by talking directly to women at risk of poverty in Melbourne. We wanted to see first hand what their real lived experience has been, and determine the problems and issues that matter most to them, as well as what they see as potential solutions.

Amazingly, and sadly, talking directly to people affected by structural inequality, asking them what they need rather than telling them what to do, is a rare and somewhat radical approach for social policy.

My first impression was how wrong so many of our stereotypes are. These women are not “losers”; most of them are not from low socio-economic backgrounds and they haven’t made terrible choices in life. Many have a good education, some have had professional careers. The most common cause of financial hardship is a string of unfortunate events, from accidents to illness of family members to relationship breakups. The financial crisis of 2008 has also played an unseen role in some losing jobs or businesses, and these women have never fully recovered.

My second impression was how truly women like this are falling through the cracks, and unnecessarily so. These women have an impressive set of skills and achievements and a great desire to contribute and participate, but current employment services don’t adequately recognise their needs. Many of them have substantial caring responsibilities, mental and physical health concerns and histories of trauma and abuse.

A lot of these women also feel alienated by an overly masculine paradigm of success and achievement.  A particularly heartbreaking insight is how much just a lack of confidence has become a barrier to these women achieving financial wellbeing. They have lost their self-esteem, self-confidence and belief in their capabilities through prolonged periods of hardship. And to make matters worse, systems put in place to provide financial support add to their sense of failure, shame and isolation.

I saw women who want to contribute, want to be financially independent, want to regain their sense of self-worth, but are confronted by a a system that shuts them out or pigeon-holes them. They don’t want to be dole bludgers, but also don’t want to play in a game that doesn’t address the issues in their complex lives.

What these women say they need is individualised support that recognises their personal strengths and circumstances and the barriers that they face.

As part of our work at the Centre for Applied Policy in Positive Ageing (CAPPA), we’ve been working with these women to develop such a program, one that understands their needs and circumstances, and makes the most of their strengths. We came across a number of patterns that led towards us developing a microenterprise support model, which we’ve called Money for Jam.

Around the world, we have seen the value of micro-enterprise in empowering women to generate income while balancing caring responsibilities. Micro-enterprise can start small, so at first can be additional to other income, which makes it low risk. And because it can start small, it can work through trial and error, rather than formal business planning, so it’s less intimidating; you don’t need to know everything up front.  Crucially for these women, micro-enterprise can also be designed to work around other commitments, such as being there for loved ones when needed, or to take care of physical or mental health issues.

With a bit of guidance, these women can create a different game, one they can play and want to play.  Rather than falling through the cracks, they can be contributing members of society, rebuild their confidence, and achieve financial wellbeing.

In the end, it’s the small things that really do count – from just building the confidence to start something new, to having jam on your toast – that takes your life from one of survival and despair, to one where you are thriving.

This article first appeared in Women’s Agenda, 18 September 2016