The poverty industry’s weird anti-work agenda

If you want to get an idea of the poverty industry’s attitude towards poor people, think of an ultra-overprotective parent, who thinks the best way to spare their children from experiencing disappointment is to persuade them to never try anything at all. That way, some of their positions which would otherwise seem bewildering start making sense.

It is the perhaps the poverty lobby’s most oft-repeated assertion that the notion of ‘working one’s way out of poverty’ is a myth. Work, they insist, merely means replacing one type of poverty (out-of-work poverty) with another (in-work poverty) in most cases. The reason for this, they claim, is the existence of low-paid jobs, or in their own terminology, ‘sub-prime jobs’. (Quite coherently, one report by the Child Poverty Action Group is subtitled End sub-prime jobs.) In their publications, the terms ‘work’ and ‘employment’ are rarely used in conjunction with positive attributes. They spell out the risks and downsides of low-paid employment in great detail, but problematically, they do not balance such descriptions against the risks and downsides of long-term welfare dependency. It is never explicitly spelled out like that, but the only logical implication would be that unless a job is well-paid, secure, fulfilling, and at sociable hours, it is better for poor people not to work at all.

CPAG, for example, argues: ‘Paid work has been lauded as the route out of poverty, but for the more than one in two poor children with a working parent, that promise has been false.’ Similarly, Oxfam claims: ‘For the past 30 years, the political consensus has held that work is the best route out of poverty. And yet more than four million of the 13.5 million people who live in poverty in the UK are working. Although work has been advocated as a route out of poverty, for many it does not provide economic independence and may actually damage their health and well-being.’ CPAG also warns that ‘Precarious jobs that do not fit well with family life generate stress for parents and children’, and Oxfam adds: ‘taking on paid work can be a risk rather than an opportunity’. CPAG bemoans ‘an overreliance on paid work as the route out of poverty – which it certainly isn’t for a substantial number of people’. Oxfam also attacks a perceived ‘single-minded focus on promoting paid employment as the only goal’.

There are two major arguments which poverty industry uses to back up their work-critical position:

  • More than half of all children in relative poverty already have a parent in paid work.

  • The UK already has one of the highest parental employment rates in Europe.

Or in short, work levels are already high enough, and there is no point in trying to raise them even further.

Both arguments are a mere play on numbers. The figures themselves are not incorrect, but when pulled out of context, they create a totally misleading impression. The first point is simply explained by the fact that every parent in minor employment or short-term employment is counted as ‘working poor’. What the poverty industry won’t tell you is that as soon as a family has at least one adult in full-time, year-round employment, it is almost mathematically impossible for them to fall below the relative poverty line. The second point is simply explained by the fact that the UK has a high proportion of dual-earner households, which pulls up the aggregate employment rate. What the poverty industry won’t tell you is that the UK also has an extremely high proportion of children in workless households.

The poverty industry is right to point out that we also need to think about the quality, not just the quantity, of the jobs available. It will not do to just get all those who are currently workless to stack supermarket shelves. But persuading them that there is not much point in even trying work will not do either.

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

3 thoughts on “The poverty industry’s weird anti-work agenda”

  1. Posted 26/02/2013 at 16:07 | Permalink

    I know a recovering drug addict who is currently unemployed and living on state welfare benefits. After going through a 12-week rehab programme, she is attending lots of AA and NA meetings to try to establish her recovery permanently (as far as that is possible) and concentrating on trying to get back her only daughter, who is being cared for by social services. In principle she says ‘in due course’ of course she wants to get a job and support herself (and her daughter), but in practice it looks as if the net short-term financial benefits will be only small, if indeed they are even positive. Once you have been on state welfare benefits for a time, it seems that it can often seem quite attractive to stay there — even though in the longer-run it may be disastrous for your self-esteem and not even necessarily financially better than getting a full-time job. It is not easy to see a way out of this problem — but it might be a good start if there were a more widespread acceptance of the philosophy that as a rule almost everyone in the population should be expected to pay their own way over their lifetime. To have millions of people apparently permanently on state welfare (which I believe is the current situation) seems unsustainable.

  2. Posted 27/02/2013 at 20:51 | Permalink

    These anti-poverty groups are correct in the sense that benefits provide a steady, predictable, income whereas ‘precarious’ jobs which are often low paid often don’t, and the benefit of such a job is often difficult to assess because of the effect of benefit withdrawal, income tax and NI and costs associated with work (travel, etc.).

    This is why such jobs need to be made more attractive by raised personal allowances, the ability to claim benefits again immediately if they end, benefits to be based on NI contributions (as was originally intended) and simplification of benefits and benefit withdrawal rates. Other cost factors could also be addressed directly. For example, travel to work in this country is expensive largely because self-transport is made difficult due to poor cycling and pedestrian provision, the reducing the attractiveness of work if there is any travel involved.

    What these anti-povery campaigners forget, however, is that the more work is done, even if low paid, the better off the country is as a whole. More stuff gets done! Conversely, the more people not working, the poorer we are. I was in one of the cities with one of the highest rates of workless households recently – there was absolutely no shortage of work needing to be done – from poorly maintained parks to derelict sites needing to be cleared. Even the low paid (in fact, especially the low paid) would benefit from the better environment were such work to be done, let alone from the money that would be earned.

  3. Posted 14/03/2013 at 14:49 | Permalink

    There is no such thing as poverty in this country. This is a mantra thought up by the do-gooders who believe that throwing money at some people will help them. From my experience of life, I have found that the more you help some people, the less they help themselves. Considering many have more money coming into their household in comparison to those who are working, they are mismanaging their finances. I used to help people who were on Benefits and give them things until they started refusing as they had already bought them. They even had the audacity to ask to borrow money from you. When I found out later that they had more money coming into ther household than I had wages, it stopped. The only people I will give anything to now, are what I term the working poor, which includes people with mortgages. I could write a book on the self inflicted poor that I have come across and helped in the past. Talk about getting your eyes opened. I now have a very unchristian attitude towards these scroungers and have hardened my attitude towards them as when you fell into the trap of feeling sorry for them with their hard luck story, you lend them money whch you never see again.

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