Jennifer Curtin and Suzy Morrissey discuss how gender differences might impact the Government’s budget priorities
*Originally published in Newsroom. Republished with permission.
The Wellbeing Budget is a new initiative for New Zealand. However, asking states to go beyond traditional measures of growth, to ones that look to enhance the health and wellbeing of individuals, communities and environment, is not new.
Rather it has attracted wide-ranging international attention – from the OECD and the United Nations to local and regional government initiatives in places like Italy and Australia.
Indeed, in 2013, an OECD report asked if a focus on wellbeing would enable women and men to “have it all” – a gentle reminder that some gender gaps are so pervasive that without conscious scrutiny and a gendered analysis of the data informing evidence-based policy design, only the most obvious gaps would be identified and addressed.
Alongside this, we know that gender equality in wellbeing is not simply a women’s issue. Traditional disadvantages faced by women and girls persist in many countries, but men and boys are increasingly exposed to uncertain job prospects and are being asked to adapt to changing tasks and societal expectations. Women are the primary target of intimate partner violence, while men are more often the victims of homicide and assault.
Reducing gender inequality is not a competition between the sexes, but rather a challenge to policy makers and politicians to take seriously the production and analysis of gender disaggregated data and indicators.
So how might gender differences impact the Government’s budget priorities?
We cannot assume that a focus on wellbeing will automatically address gender inequalities.
Women (and some men) and children will benefit from the $320 million allocated to address family and sexual violence. The personal and economic significance of this initiative should not be underestimated. The Treasury’s Living Standards Dashboard indicates that women have a lower sense of safety and security than men, so we might expect to see an increase in levels of women’s wellbeing on this measure over the next five years. There is also potential economic value attached to this spend. In 2014, Sherilee Kahui and Suzanne Snively estimated that family violence costs New Zealand between $4.1 to $7 billion per year, with nearly $1 billion a year in lost productivity in the workplace. Without intervention, the figure was predicted to result in a 10-year cumulative cost approaching $80 billion.
Thus, while the Finance Minister’s discussion of building a productive economy focused on traditional “innovation” incentives, the investment in sexual and domestic violence services may also have a positive impact on productivity alongside an increased sense of wellbeing. The intergenerational dimension has been addressed with a set of dedicated funds for support services for children and young people who are the victims of domestic and sexual violence.
This focus on children is evident through the introduction of the Child Poverty Reduction Act and associated new spends in a range of portfolios (Social Development, Oranga Tamariki, Justice, ACC, Customs). Where the wellbeing of children intersects with many women however, is in the decision to index benefits to average wages rather than inflation. This was somewhat of a surprise change, although the question of indexing benefits (and tax brackets) has been raised by many over the years, including the Royal Commission on Social Security in 1972, and more recently the Child Poverty Action Group, the Children’s Commissioner Andrew Beecroft, and the Tax Working Group. That the National Party has committed to indexing tax brackets if returned to government suggests these are changes long overdue.
The Government estimates that around 329,000 individuals and families will benefit from the change, particularly those on Sole Parent Support who are frequently identified as living in poverty. There are more than 200,000 ‘one parent with children’ families in New Zealand, representing 18 percent of all family types. Of these families, 84 percent are headed by women. Thus, the impact of indexation with benefit women and children, and begin to close the gap between the incomes of sole parent families and superannuitants.
Increasing the wellbeing of women and men, girls and boys, is assisted when we have the disaggregated data we need for robust evidence-informed funding decisions. So the $1.9 billion committed to a wide of mental health services as well as reducing homelessness, will be of significant benefit to men, particularly young men, Māori and non-Māori, who are more likely than women to be subject to treatment orders and special patient status, and to be victims of suicide.
The health of the economy and the wellbeing of businesses was also a key feature of this Budget, and here too we can consider the potential gendered impact of new spending on innovation initiatives in the digital age. For example, the Government has committed $300 million to the NZ Venture Investment Fund to continue support for start-ups and another $157 million to encourage increased productivity and the uptake new technologies.
Yet, New Zealand is a poor performer when it comes to gender parity in its technology sector. According to a 2018 MYOB Report, 22 percent of graduates in IT are women (this percentage decreases the higher the level of degree completed), 23 percent of the tech workforce and 21 percent of tech executives are women, respectively, but only 3 percent of girls are considering a career in the tech sector. Yet we also know that the number of women starting their own businesses almost doubled in 2015 (from 100,000 to almost 200,000). Access to modern technology is credited for the growth but the sector itself, and government investment in it, appears slow to recognise this gender dimension.
Our review by no means represents a full gender impact analysis of this inaugural Wellbeing Budget. Nor has it touched upon the work that remains uncounted – the unpaid labour that is integral to any measure of productivity and economic and social wellbeing. For this, we would need a new Time Use Survey. We cannot assume that a focus on wellbeing will automatically address gender inequalities. What is required are systematic gender and intersectional analyses across the budget cycle and throughout the policy process. This type of evidence-informed policy requires good data; data that can be disaggregated in ways that reflect the realities of people’s lives. If gendered data doesn’t exist, we need to start collecting it, to ensure the benefits of a Wellbeing Budget are distributed equitably and effectively across generations.