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.