Aug 20, 2009

Sexism and poverty

There's a great article in the London Review of Books about the confluence of identity politics and neoliberalism. The basic thesis is one that I find difficult to disagree with: making society more diverse is not the same as making it more equal.

To elaborate: diversity is the word we use to describe the person-profile make up of different groups. So, for example, in Parliament, such and such a percentage of MPs are female, so many are Asian, a certain amount are gay, disabled, etc. The rest are all able bodies white men, who are seen as the default and only complete embodiment of the idea of "human being".

So, diversity is the measure of how close any given group - a company board, a school, a political institution - is in its ethnic, gender and cultural make-up to the whole of the population. Obviously a lack of diversity is near to impossible to defend: unless you turn yourself inside out with sophistry and made up "data" to prove that female, disabled, black or foreign people are somehow naturally stupider than white men, there's no explanation for their lack of representation.

Equality is something a litle different. You get different types of equality: equality of opportunity (beloved of New Labour and other neoliberal movements), equality of outcome (the progressive, socialist ideal), and economic equality, or equality of income or wealth. As it happens, the UK isn't doing too well on any of these scales compared to the rest of Europe, but Michaels concentrates on the interaction between diversity and equality of income.

Specifically, his main argument is that racial/gender equality serves neoliberal profit maximisation interests, and that it has been used as a smoke screen to distract from the wider picture of economic inequality and the social ills occasioned by it. It's a compelling and illuminating argument, and I find it hard to disagree when Michaels says things like:

The focus of [...] outrage [...] is not the fact that some people can afford the chocolates and others can’t, but that the ones who can are mean to the ones who can’t. And this represents something of an innovation in left politics. While everyone has always disapproved of adding insult to injury, it’s traditionally been the right that’s sought to treat the insult as if it were the injury.

I'm not a big fan of classism, or in its more old fashioned name, snobbery; but if I could eliminate either snobbery or poverty, I know which one I'd go for. Where I part ways with Michaels is in his attitude towards sexism and how it interacts with capitalism.

To be fair, though he lumps anti-racism and anti-sexism together for the purposes of making his point, the majority of the article concentrates on race relations and not gender politics; I get an inkling that that is because Michaels realises that his argument vis a vis institutionalised sexism is weak. He concludes:

If the downside of the politics of anti-discrimination is that it now functions to legitimate the increasing disparities not produced by racism or sexism, the upside is the degree to which it makes visible the fact that the increase in those disparities does indeed have nothing to do with racism or sexism.

I'm not a race relations scholar and I leave the question of how economic inequality and racism interact to others. But it is categorically untrue that inequality is not the product of sexism, and the data simply does not support such a breezy dismissal of anti-sexism (put less politely, feminism) as economically toothless identity politics.

According to the Rowntree Foundation's Poverty Website, women are only slightly more likely than men to live in low income households - in other words, to be poor - than men. Among those, single retired women and lone parents are the most likely to do so; luckily however, it is in those two groups that the gap between women and men has been narrowing most quickly. This is good news.

Mysteriously though, a staggering 31% of children are likely to live in low income households; a dramatically higher proportion than either women or men.

Huh? Are kids forming their own little minimum wage communes now, or what?

The answer lies in the fact that these numbers are absolute, not proportional. They are calculated in terms of total income per household, not relative income per household member. Which means that for every 1 single mother with 3 kids living in poverty, there are 3 children living in poverty - and the majority of single parents in the UK are still, despite media scaremongering, mothers.

Breaking the statistic down further, if a man lives in a "household" with an income of less than £10K p.a., or the aforementioned woman with 3 kids lives in a "household" with the same income, he still has 4 times as much real income as any of teh people in her and her children. This example, though, is not very solid - because in reality the woman is highly unlikely to have the same level of income as hte man in the first place.

And that is where sexism comes in. Women still earn approximately 85% of what men do - but for low earning women, those in part time or unstable work who struggle the most to stay above the povery line, the pay gap is an appaling 33%.

So, more women are bringing children up on their own; on average they earn less and have more mouths to feed; and if they can't work full time because some of their children are small, then the two effects are likely to be amplified many times over.

How does this tie back with the economic inequality issue? Well, the one thing that everybody seems to agree on when tlaking about social mobility is that there isn't any. Rich parents are still overwhelmingly more likely to raise rich children. Children who grow up poor are crushingly more likely to spend the rest of their lives in the cycle of poverty. And more children are raised poor because of sexism than anythig else.

Parenting equality, pay equality, status equality between traditional "male" and "female" professions; these are all essential to closing the poverty gap and improving that GINI coefficient. And yes, diversity, too - as we are currently seeing with Harriet Harman and Hillary Clinton, women in power are much more likely to emphasise women's issues than males are. I'm with ya that the left should get its economic priorities right already, and stop pandering to pampered upper middle class paranoiacs; but if you think that means that feminists can hang up their boxing gloves, you're dead on the nose wrong. Because on economic reform and financial equality as on anything else, if men do what they've done, we'll get what we've got. The patriarchy causes poverty, and the patriarchy has to go.

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