Why work is not the best way out of poverty

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.



One thought on “Why work is not the best way out of poverty”

  1. The first and obvious lesson from the improved position of pensioners is that a universal citizens income would solved the basic poverty problem. It will not solve the underlying problem that there are people who are completely unconcerned with the greater good. They believe that whatever income and assets they have are theirs by right and there is no need for them to share. The real solution probably does lie with education but not for the obvious reason that education provides skills which lead to an income. We need to educate our coming generations in the benefits of sharing.

    I have had the good fortune to travel widely and live for periods in less developed (in a western sense) parts of the globe and there is plenty of evidence that wealth is not the automatic provider of comfort, happiness or well-being. In communities where sharing is simply a way of life one usually finds contented people. Whether it is exchanging excess production from crops or picking up a neighbour who needs transport to where you are going the issue is in how the individual thinks. Complete strangers have offered me food, wine and hospitality with no thought of reward. A policeman gave my wife and I his bed in a remote part of west Africa, a road worker, crouched outside her rudimentary tent in southern India offered me the first roti she had cooked over her open wood fire for that day’s dinner for the road gang, a father made sure i was seated securely in the back of an open pick-up to save me a massive clim and then dropped his three year-old daughter in my lap – she was a delight.

    We learned quickly that it is simply not done to turn up at a neighbour’s door empty-handed in a Bulgarian village and etiquette requires that you have something (most people have a box of sweets just inside the door) to offer in exchange. That is no so different to what were normal courtesies in the Scotland of my youth.

    Now we have ordinary men like Cameron and Osborne determined not to share their ordinary millions so what surprise is it that others avoid tax, consider the needy to be scroungers and avoid obvious ways to raise tax like increasing inheritance tax and ensuring that electors are properly consulted over who is elected to govern.

    I agree that our approach to the elimination of poverty needs a radical rethink but we also need to change attitudes to achieve a lasting solution.

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