A Radical Approach to Child Poverty has to Tackle Bad Jobs

This Thursday Iain Duncan Smith will announce an update to the Government’s child poverty strategy. It’s been billed as a radical approach, but that’s rather like saying ordering a diet coke with your supersized McDonalds is a radical way to lose weight.

The measures rumoured to be included are the recycled announcement of more children getting school dinners, more food stamps and measures that will help slightly reduce poorer families’ utility bills. Not exactly ground-breaking.

There may be a rabbit or two pulled from the hat, but if previous policy is an indication, the biggest shock will come from what is left out. The Government’s first child poverty strategyand its subsequent social justice strategy, both failed to feature a single policy devoted to reducing in-work poverty. Given 2/3 of children living in poverty are in families where at least one adult works, this seems bizarre.

The idea of fixing child poverty by focusing on those out of work is deeply flawed, particularly considering most unemployed people find work within 6 months. But it’s also worth looking at why these people are out of work.

The most common reason found for people to claim unemployment benefits, according to a DWP study, is that they lost their last job because they fell ill. This fits with two common features of low quality jobs; they are insecure, and people in them are more likely to fall ill.

Zero Hour contracts and self-employment based contract work don’t provide sick pay and don’t guarantee that there will be a job left when you get better. People in the poorest quality jobs have lower physical health and have worse mental health than even unemployed people. People aren’t working in jobs that don’t give them enough hours by choice. The number of people who are part time employed but wanting full time work is at its highest for 20 years.

In this light, the focus of the social security system on getting people into any job, and not prioritising work that pays more and has better hours seems self-defeating.

There are some positive moves in the Government’s social security reforms, including the proposal for people in work on universal credit to receive some support in finding better jobs, but there is still a primary focus of being ‘job type agnostic’. This is a mistake.

A far more powerful move would be for the Government to flex its procurement muscles. For example, organisations providing government initiatives to help people into work should be incentivised to get people into jobs that pay a living wage and provide progression opportunities.

Rather than making small changes to bills and food vouchers for those out of work, if the Government wants to radically tackle child poverty it must deal with bad jobs. To do so, it must focus on helping people break the low pay no pay cycle. 

Tim Stacey, Policy and Campaigns Officer