At the hustings, there seemed to be a general agreement between the politicians that work is the best route out of poverty. It’s a common misconception, reinforced yesterday by a further claim that it’s all about education and opportunity. These are common muddles, but worse, they have been diverting us from focusing on policies that have a much better record.
The place to start is with poverty. Poverty is complex, multi-dimensional and many headed. It’s a wicked problem, where apparent solutions that help in one way can add to the problems in others. Single solutions don’t work.
Let’s focus, however, on low income. Large numbers of people suffer low incomes for extended periods – previous research suggests that in Britain, well over half of us will have had at least a year on low income in a ten-year period. The reasons for low income include unemployment, but they also include low pay, having young children, divorce, disability, becoming a student, suffering discrimination or falling ill. Being in secure, well-paid work helps people to be less vulnerable, but it’s not a sovereign cure. If we look at the evidence on the dynamics of poverty, education helps, and work helps, but so do staying healthy and marrying someone with a stable income. But surely, it’s said, people in work are less likely to be poor. True – but it doesn’t follow that entering work will have that effect on the next person into it, any more than encouraging people to focus on their marriage prospects would. It all depends on the job, as marriage depends on who you marry. The economy matters in general terms, because that shapes the range, pattern and numbers of jobs that are available; but work is no guarantee of invulnerability.
If we look at what pushing people into work has done, it hasn’t led to a reduction in poverty. It has led to an increase in the proportion or people who are working on low incomes. It’s also given us, as a by-product, a staggering increase in penalties for non-compliance with benefit rules, and some catastrophically low incomes as a result. ‘Employability’ providers have been diverted from what they do best, which is to help people in need of support; benefits have been undermined by rules which have little or nothing to do with people’s financial circumstances. Putting together work preparation and benefits has been bad for both.
If work isn’t the way, what is? We might get a clue by looking at pensions, where there have been positive improvements over several years. That’s not because pensioners are entering the workplace; it’s because pensions have improved. Benefits matter; and, for dealing with poverty in a broader sense, the basic structure of services is critical. If we’re serious about tackling poverty, we need a much broader based, structural response to the problems.