A new era begins when work doesn’t end poverty anymore

Economics, Food & livelihoods, Inequality, Poverty in the UK

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation figures released this week, updating the state of play in poverty and social exclusion in the UK, ring all too true with the experience of people Oxfam works with every day.

They tell us of a labour market that is not meeting the needs of many people, nor the needs of our vulnerable communities. Oxfam’s Humankind Index in Scotland revealed that people want satisfying work; work that provides security and sufficiency of income; work that enables them to be part of their communities. But the recent figures from JRF reveal that for too many these are unattainable goals.

People are working (only 2% of working age households are ‘never worked’ households), but work just isn’t enough anymore. People are working (only 2% of working age households are ‘never worked’ households), but work just isn’t enough anymore. The type of employment market we’ve created – or let arise – just isn’t delivering. Even the most basic of goals for work, that it lifts people out of poverty, is far from being
attained. Now, over half of children and working-age adults in poverty live in a working household, the result of a decade’s rise in in-work poverty.


And when people do move into work, according to the JRF report, it is often short-lived: around 42% of Job Seekers Allowance claims from the first quarter of 2012 were the second in six months. So people do find work, albeit often against the most challenging of barriers, and despite little return to their take home pay due to costly childcare. But the work swiftly comes to an end, and they need to apply for JSA again. Many of the organisations
Oxfam works with support some of the 4.8 million people who have claimed JSA at least once in the last two years.


JRF underemployment infographic

The JRF figures suggest that 6.4 million people were ‘underemployed’ in the first half of 2012 – either unemployed people (2.6 million); economically inactive people who want work (2.4 million); or working part-time because they cannot find full-time work (1.4 million).

This is a huge number of people to be lacking the work they want, and it undermines any allegations that people don’t want to work at all. It seems that the quality of the work available is lowering – and we know the low security and constant stress that low income creates impacts negatively on individual workers. Evidence shows, for example, that temporary workers have shorter life
than those with permanent contracts.

The Oxfam Humankind Index for Scotland shows that people want work that enables them to participate and integrate; to develop social networks and contribute to society. More than ever we need an economic model that delivers good jobs – jobs
that provide
enough to live on; allow balance with other social roles; and, perhaps most importantly, treat workers as human beings who deserve to have their efforts rewarded appropriately. This isn’t too much to ask, surely?


But the JRF figures show that the quality of that interaction is undermined by labour market polarisation. We are seeing increased atomisation of the labour market, increasingly superficial workplace relationships, and ability to control your work life enjoyed by an increasingly select few.

Instead there is a growing insecurity. This insecurity is reflected in the huge change to the nature of poverty in the UK, a UK in which work is no longer is work a route out of poverty.

Unemployment infographic by Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Author: Katherine Trebeck
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.