By Carol Berry, CEO, Illawarra Women's Health Centre
In my experience, issues facing women from disadvantaged communities are no different, in many ways, from those challenges facing women generally – those issues for women in disadvantaged communities are simply compounded, and the landing base for when life goes pear-shaped much less soft.
Issues such as violence, drug and alcohol abuse, financial stress, childcare stress, the burden of caring responsibilities, work stress, health problems and anxiety are all issues that impact on women in disadvantaged communities.
One of the key issues I see on a regular basis is the debilitating psychological impact of stress and anxiety, particularly as it relates to financial stress, or a lack of control over one’s economic security, or ability to make ends meet on a week to week basis. This stress can have a flow on impact into many other facets of one’s life experience and general sense of wellbeing.
Many women bear the burden of financial stress in their most intimate relationships. Financial stress is a permanent fixture, and it manifests as a constant sense of low, moderate or high levels of stress. This stress and anxiety leads to a significant loss of enjoyment of life, as well as creates the conditions for poor decision making in regard to other facets of one’s life, such as family diet, smoking, alcohol and other drug abuse. Research shows that many women who experience financial stress have also suffered health problems, which manifest as physical and mental health problems, as well as relationship difficulties which can then lead to divorce or domestic violence issues.
In 2010, the Wesley Mission released a report entitled ‘Making Ends Meet’ and this report emphasised that financial stress is not just about money, and emphasised the flow on effect of this problem. The report asserted that more than a third of households are impacted upon by financial stress, more than half the population are anxious about the future and one in six are “very worried” about their financial future.
The Wesley Mission report argues that there is an urgent need to provide more financial counselling services, and more broadly, to instil a culture of saving and common sense around managing money. Unfortunately, financial stress will not be going away any time soon, and we must work hard to encourage young families in particular not to overstretch themselves in regard to mortgages and credit card debt. However, job insecurity is a more pervasive issue. As industries shut down, up skilling opportunities and emerging industries or sectors are becoming harder to access. This is creating a jobs vacuum for many disadvantaged women and their families. Whilst many women in disadvantaged communities are incredibly enterprising, the challenges can seem insurmountable. Add to this, many women are juggling child-rearing or care responsibilities into this mix and flexible work hours and conditions can be very stressful to navigate.
In my view we must be working to create a stronger societal safety net to ensure women do not feel alone. In the past, when communities faced economic uncertainty, they pitched together. Communities were stronger and better connected. Women now are increasingly isolated from one another, making the burden seem greater for individual women. For many women the shame of financial stress is preventing them from seeking help early, which can further exacerbate financial problems. Now, more than ever, our communities and governments must be highlighting the fact that financial stress is a common problem, and encouraging a sense of community, and a sense that everyone will be looked after – no matter what. We have more than enough wealth in this country to ensure that no-one needs to feel they will ever be alone, or left out in the cold. The stronger our communities are through these challenging economic times, the more capable we will be as individuals and communities to see our families through difficult times – which is often the emotional and practical burden that women bear – especially women experiencing disadvantage.
Many families feel pressure to live beyond their means, and this tendency has become normalised. Unfortunately when an unpredicted life event manifests, such as a job loss, this is where individuals and families hit the wall, which can cause massive personal upheaval, family and personal breakdown. As our society becomes more competitive, many women in disadvantaged communities want to ensure they are doing their best by their family, which means working harder, and taking on more stress. The flow on effect of this for women can stretch them to breaking point. This should not be normalised as a common experience for women. Instead, ensuring a great public education, social housing and welfare system can take the edge off the stress on families doing it tough. Whilst everyone must be encouraged to make sensible financial decisions, we also must recognise the fact that often life circumstances are beyond an individual’s control, and a compassionate and caring response is the hallmark of a civilised society – which we surely live in.
More specifically, there is room for the Federal Government to invest resources and energy into up-skilling the nation around financial management issues. A campaign to ensure that families do not take on too much debt is crucial in regard to educating the population (particularly to those populations vulnerable to debt) around financial management issues. Whilst some resources exist around this subject, there must be a concerted effort to ensure the public is better educated around the debilitating impact of these issues for individuals and families. It would also be very worthwhile educating young people whilst they are still at school around financial management issues, as this is such an essential life skill in today’s environment. Subjects which could be covered include the importance of savings, the management of debt, and the importance of avoiding unmanageable debt.
As the Wesley Mission report identifies, almost half of those under financial stress have suffered from ill health, both physical and mental, and a third have experienced relationship issues, including divorce and domestic violence. A quarter turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with the strain, and one in ten exacerbate their financial problems with gambling. The level of credit card debt among households under stress is two to three times that of other households. Seven in ten of those under stress rarely or never pay off this debt. Four in ten households don’t have a budget and a third of those with budgets don’t stick to them and overspend. Attitudes to money remain unhealthy: eight in 10 households do not have a savings mentality, and many struggle with the concept of reducing expenses to deal with financial hardship.
These issues come down to a culture that permits too much debt and does not encourage a risk-averse approach to household finances. Whilst there is no doubt room for better regulation of banks and lenders on this front, this is a subject for another piece. In the interim, whilst we still enable families falling into unmanageable debt, vulnerable families bear the greatest strain of this burden, and specifically women within families often suffer the most.