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UK Policy Briefing

Social security and gender: Briefing for a new government

This briefing outlines how a more adequate and sustainable social security system is vital to the recovery of people’s lives and the economy.

Marilyn Howard , Ignacia Pinto and Angela Barca


  • Both the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis starkly illustrated why a social security system is critical to our country’s social infrastructure: it protects us financially during times of unexpected crisis or risk (e.g. unemployment; sickness, and even national lockdown), providing income replacement. It also supports those who have additional costs (such as disability, children). It can also relieve and prevent poverty. And it can encourage engagement with the wider labour market for those who need extra financial support.
  • Social security is particularly vital in securing economic independence for all women. This is because women are more likely than men to rely on social security for a larger proportion of their income because on average they have lower earnings, lower savings and less assets, and greater (unpaid) caring responsibilities. Yet the current system is falling short for millions of women and children.
  • Economic dependence makes women more vulnerable to domestic and sexual abuse and violence, since it makes it harder to leave abusive relationships. This is particularly true for migrant women who have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).
  • Cuts and changes made to benefits from 2010 have exacerbated economic inequalities for different groups of women (including women from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, lone mothers and disabled women), and increased in-work poverty for women and children.
  • Benefits which help to meet additional disability-related costs are vital to disabled people’s participation in society and are of particular value to women, who are the majority of disabled people. Women are also more likely to be providing unpaid care for disabled people.


In the short term:

  • Increase the real value of benefits to at least restore their pre-pandemic values. Also, retain regular uprating of social security benefits. Otherwise, the ongoing cost of living crisis is set to further worsen low-income families’ ability to afford essentials.
  • Abolish the Benefit Cap and Two-child limit to prevent child poverty and make other changes to UC such as ending the UC five-week wait and introducing a second-earner work allowance.
  • Abolish the High-Income Child Benefit Charge and increase Child Benefit to £50 per child: Child Benefit fell significantly in real terms during austerity. We recommend an above inflation increase to counter this and also close the inequality gaps that widened during the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.
  • Get Universal Credit to claimants sooner by making advances non-repayable grants: Currently, families have to wait five weeks for a payment, or accrue debt in the form of an advance, which is only available as a loan.
  • Remove the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ condition which excludes many migrant women from support.
  • Retain PIP and related disability benefits as cash payments and as a vital contribution towards the additional costs of disability.

In the longer term, a better social security system should be:

  • Taking a life-course approach, so that the benefits system does not impede movement into and out of different types of employment that suit people at different stages of their lives. It should recognise that many people, particularly women, have employment histories interrupted by caring breaks and ensure that this does not lead to poverty in old age.
  • Designed by and for users, so that the decision-making process on future reforms includes the views and voices of users, as well as those of other experts. This also includes adhering to the spirit of international obligations such as the UN Conventions on the rights of the child, disabled people and women, and where possible, designing out any opportunities for abusers to perpetrate violence and abuse.
  • Assessed for equality impacts at every stage as an integral part of the policymaking process, in other words when policies are designed, implemented, and revised.
  • Part of a holistic review of social security, tax and public services, because people need public services as well as income. Social security works in combination with other parts of the social protection system, including housing and health, social and childcare, and needs to be evaluated as part of that system as a whole and the taxation system that funds it, including for its equality impact.
  • Based on individual entitlement as far as possible, so as to foster economic autonomy for individuals and make economic and financial abuse more difficult to perpetrate. Individual interests may not coincide within a family or household and therefore individual access to income also matters.
  • Non-means-tested, to prevent and not just provide relief from poverty; to compensate people for additional costs (such as children or disability related); and to ensure that individuals have access to an alternative source of income, to be able to refuse degrading forms of employment. Some means-testing will still be required, but autonomy ought to be prioritised here.
  • Encouraging the sharing of care, so that the gendered division of labour is not exacerbated. No policy should rely on just one individual having to be the main carer or the main earner in a family.