France’s cost-of-living crisis is hitting women hardest

Poverty is worsening in France and women and children are the main victims, the charity Secours Catholique has warned in its annual report, highlighting the burden of inflation, childcare and entrenched gender inequality on single women and mothers.

The French charity released its annual survey of poverty in France on Tuesday, saying it catered to a record one million people in 2022, up from 780,000 the previous year, amid an inflation crisis that has hit low-income households hardest.

Among the beneficiaries, single-adult households were over-represented (75%), including mainly single mothers (25.7%) and single women (20.9%). Secours Catholique said the findings reflected a slow but steady increase in the share of women living in poverty, which accounted for 57.5% of the total in 2022 – up from 52% at the turn of the century.

Jean Merckaert, the charity’s France advocacy officer, pointed to several factors behind this increase, starting with the rise in break-ups, in particular marital breakdowns, in which women tend to pay the highest price.

“In 9 cases out of 10, when we talk about single-parent households living in poverty, we’re talking about mothers whose meagre earnings and allowances are insufficient to cover childcare expenses,” Merckaert explained.

Read moreA tale of one city: Women and the UK cost-of-living crisis

Another factor is the enduring gender inequality on the job market, which penalises women throughout their careers as well as after they retire.

“Women are more often employed in low-income jobs and are also more likely to work part time,” Merckaert said. “The time devoted to children and household chores means many women are hindered in their career development, and when couples split, they are stuck with little to survive on,” he added.

Job inequality then translates into smaller pensions, leading to a marked increase in the number of older women who struggle to get by at the end of the month.

Mothers ‘deprive themselves’ to provide for children

Merckaert cited the slight increase in the share of women among France’s immigrant population as another factor behind what Secours Catholique describes as the “feminisation of poverty”.

“It was particularly the case last year because of the high number of people fleeing the war in Ukraine, three quarters of whom were women, including many with children,” he explained. The fallout from the war in Ukraine has weighed heavily on France’s poorest households, sparking an inflation crisis that has battered their purchasing power.

Based on data from 49,250 forms filled in by beneficiaries, Secours Catholique has calculated that their median monthly income stood at 538 euros in 2022. That amount represents less than half the poverty threshold, estimated at 1,211 euros last year. It translates into a daily budget of 18 euros – or 19 dollars – to cover all household needs.

Taking into account inflation, which affects food and energy prices in particular, this represents a 7.6% drop in income from the previous year, said Merckaert, stressing the blow to the purchasing power of the poorest households.

“You can’t get by on 538 euros a month, especially not when you have to pay rent, clothes, food and the children’s school,” he said. “That’s why more and more are coming to charities like ours.”

Merckaert stressed the physical and emotional strain on single mothers who struggle to make ends meet and provide for their children.

“Mothers live in anguish that their children will suffer from poverty and do everything they can to hide it,” he said. “Many deprive themselves and forgo relationships, outings or even proper nourishment to ensure their children can have a heated room and go on school trips.”

Changing perceptions of the ‘inactive’

The charity’s findings are consistent with a broader trend highlighted by France’s national statistics institute INSEE, which published its own report on poverty and rising inequality on Tuesday.

INSEE’s figures for 2021 showed an extra half a million people had slipped below the poverty threshold compared to the previous year, largely due to the lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government winding up its emergency spending programmes. The increase brought the share of people living in poverty to 14.5% of the French population.

The inflation crisis that kicked in last year means INSEE’s data is likely to look significantly worse for 2022, the year studied in the report by Secours Catholique.

To combat poverty, the charity recommends indexing minimum social benefits to the national minimum wage and expanding other schemes that supplement the earnings of low-income households. It also calls for a wider effort to change the way their contribution to society is perceived and rewarded.

In a separate report released in September, in partnership with the association AequitaZ, the charity highlighted the “crazy work” performed by people regarded as “inactive” (unemployed) – a reference to a notorious 2018 comment by President Emmanuel Macron on the “crazy money” the French state spends on allowances. They include many of the volunteers who work for Secours Catholique, 70% of whom are women, said Merckaert.

“Sixty percent of those who seek our help are people whom statistics describe as ‘inactive’. But when you look at their day-to-day lives, you realise they don’t have a minute to themselves, racing between schools, doctors, food banks, ailing relatives and interviews for insecure jobs,” he said. “When you hear politicians say these people cost us a fortune, it’s both wrong and unfair.”

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