The great unmentionable: in-work poverty

The Government’s strategy for addressing poverty and inequality is geared towards tackling benefit dependency and making the transition into work easier. In this respect there is a great deal of continuity with the rhetoric, if not the practice, of the previous Labour administration.

The publication today of this year’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ought to give anyone convinced by the Government’s strategy pause for thought. The report shows that the overall number of children living in poverty has fallen (to, a still pretty shocking, 3.7m) and the number of children in workless households has fallen to 1.6m. This is most likely because of the rises in tax credits and child benefit under Labour. At the same time it shows that the number of children in poverty who are living in working families rose slightly. They now account for 58% of the total.

One of the authors of the report, Tom MacInnes, comments that “it is simply not possible to base anti-poverty policies on the idea that work alone is a route out of poverty”.

In many ways this should not come as news at all. The policy fixation with getting people into work – any work – as a means of dealing with a social problem took hold in the mid-1990s. On the back of discussions about social exclusion/social inclusion, policy came to see ‘social inclusion’ as meaning paid employment. Yet, as my good friend Professor Levitas argued a decade and a half ago in Critical Social Policy (available here for those with access) and at greater length in The Inclusive Society, the equation of being ‘in work’ with having dealt with the problem of social exclusion is to draw a veil over the massive inequalities in the labour market. It is to fail to recognise exploitation and discrimination. It also devalues unpaid work. While moving from inactivity to employment may well have considerable benefits in a number of areas – including more active engagement with society, contribution to public finances, better mental health – it is not by definition a cure for the problems of poverty and lack of social participation.

For policy makers to make even slightly plausible claims that work does represent a cure for poverty they would need to hold tight to the idea of a minimum wage that delivers an acceptable standard of living. Will this particular government be inclined to adopt a positive orientation towards the minimum wage, given that those on the Right are typically hostile to the idea? Can the country ‘afford’ a minimum wage, in the context of a narrative of cut-throat global competition? When that battle finally commences, as it undoubtedly will, perhaps the fact the minimum wage was recently voted the most successful policy of the last 30 years will provide those seeking to ensure that work really does pay with some much needed ammunition.

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