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Why women are much more likely to be caught in the poverty trap

In this edited excerpt from her new book, The Gender Bias, Big Issue Ambassador Sabrina Cohen-Hatton explains how the 'glass breadline' is a trap that hits women hardest

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

Image supplied

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is a leading firefighter, an award-winning academic and a writer. She is also a Big Issue Ambassador, having sold the magazine as a teenager in Wales. That experience changed her life, by opening up a pathway out of homelessness towards a bright future. She’s just written her second book, The Gender Bias, about the societal barriers holding women back.

If being a woman is hard, being a poor woman is even harder. Socioeconomic status (SES) is a measure of social and economic position based on income, occupation and education – in old money, your social class. And gender intersects with SES to create unique difficulties for women. Despite the myths of a classless society, there is a ‘glass breadline’ – an invisible barrier of social norms and preconceptions preventing social mobility, trapping people below it. It’s tough for anyone who finds themselves in this position, but being a woman makes you even more likely to get stuck there.

It’s not just the material constraints of living in poverty that make it hard, it’s the emotional strain. I know how people look at you differently when you’re living below the breadline. Because I grew up there. I was raised on benefits in a single-parent household following the death of my father. Food insecurity was an everyday reality. My free school meal was the biggest meal of the day. We didn’t have a washing machine that worked, or heating. We didn’t have new clothes or the latest gadgets. Going without material stuff was the easy part. Seeing the emotional strain on the people around you left the most indelible mark.

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I saw my mother skip meals. And I saw her distress when we would go to the supermarket and couldn’t afford enough food. I saw her age prematurely. I saw the way people would judge her because of the way she presented herself. She didn’t wear nice clothes. She couldn’t afford to. And she stopped wearing make-up. She couldn’t afford it. My mother didn’t bother with her hair. She couldn’t afford it. I saw the way that affected her self-esteem. I saw her slowly withdraw from friends, family and eventually from society.

We would pretend not to be home when the bailiffs were knocking. It was unnerving as a child to experience intimidating, physically imposing men banging on the door. They would shout through the letterbox that they knew we were in there. They could ‘smell us’. It doesn’t prepare you for a good day at school. When poverty is a reality, it can quickly go from bad to worse. Before I was 16, I experienced homelessness. I slept on the streets and sold The Big Issue. While some people showed me immeasurable kindness, many looked at me like I was sub-human. People were swift to judge me based on how I looked, dressed and presented. More told me that my circumstances must have been my fault than ever asked me why I was experiencing them.

Sabrina in her firefighter uniform
Image supplied

Things are not the same for me now. I have a good job and a PhD. People respond to me very differently when I’m smartly dressed with manicured hands – despite them being the same hands that would sell Big Issues. They didn’t see me before, but they see me now. Yet I still experience self-doubt and feel like an imposter. It is hard to shift the mindset I had when I sat underneath the glass breadline. 

Those on the lowest incomes and relying on welfare are falling below the poverty line at an alarming rate. Economic analysis by Women’s Budget Group found that, over 10 years of austerity from 2010-20, 59 per cent of welfare cuts have come from women’s pockets. Another sheet of glazing being placed on top of that glass breadline, widening the gap between what women have and what they need.

Breaking through is even more complicated if you have dependents. According to government ‘Household Below Average Income’ statistics, almost half of children in single-parent households are in poverty. Given that single mothers head 85 per cent of lone-parent households, women face yet another barrier to improving their life chances. Two in five single-parent households experience low or very low food security. People are making the choice between food or fuel, meals or rent, and are going hungry as a result. 

Being hungry isn’t just uncomfortable. It impacts your cognitive ability. It affects children at school, resulting in poorer educational attainment. Ofqual, the exam watchdog, found that children on free school meals were 57 per cent less likely to get a Grade 7 (an A) or above in their GCSEs. Being from a home with low SES is a solid predictor of how well you will do at school. Not IQ. Not aptitude. And not personality. It’s your socioeconomic status, your social class that matters.

The impact of poverty doesn’t just stop after exam results. Social mobility isn’t easily realised for anyone, but is particularly pronounced for women. According to the ONS, just 18 per cent of women who received free school meals recorded earnings above the Living Wage when they were 25, compared to just 28 per cent of men. Both are far too low. 

Over 14 million people in the UK live in poverty; that’s more than one in five people who are limited not by their potential but by their circumstances. Over four million of those are children, filled with potential but denied the opportunity to fulfil it. Imagine how much stronger our society would be if we could release the potential of that extra fifth. 

That we see so many people trapped in poverty isn’t down to a lack of hard work. Eight million people are working but are still below that glass breadline.But there are ways to dismantle it. One unhelpful notion in our society is that anyone can make it with enough graft – and framing those of low SES as lazy or feckless. Challenging what we think we know about success, and recognising the systemic and social barriers is an important first step.

Systemic change is needed to aid social mobility by providing a ladder, not just a safety net. Improving access to affordable childcare for all is essential for lone-parent and low-income families to access employment. Greater opportunities for flexible working would lessen the rigidity of low-wage jobs. People often have complex and interdependent issues – so organisations that can support needs in one place are vital.

It’s not just a matter of social mobility, though. Class is another societal strand that limits a person’s progress. Social class transcends generations. It would be naive to think just because you’ve defied the odds, smashed through that glass breadline, navigated the glass labyrinth then smashed through the glass ceiling like a superwoman tearing through the stratosphere, you’ll suddenly ‘fit’.

This is when we all have to challenge ourselves more and be more comfortable with ‘difference’ in whichever guise it comes. Then women like me might not forever feel that they’re looking up, even when they’re standing on the same step of the ladder.

The Gender Bias book cover

This is an edited extract from The Gender Bias: The Barriers That Hold Women Back and How To Break Them, which is out now (Blink Publishing, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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