2020 job market projected to push poverty even higher

Tackling poverty means tackling the weak job market

Research we publish today looks at the impact of the projected job market in 2020 on poverty in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s more bad news. The implication is that we should target jobs and training assistance on the basis of household, not just individual, need and focus unerringly on the creation of more and better jobs.

The research uses a forecast of the type of job market we expect to have in 2020 and combines this with a model of household incomes that includes announced tax and benefit changes. The central forecast for 2020 is for many long-term trends to continue, including shifts towards a knowledge- and service-based economy and increases in high- and low-paid jobs. We already know that cuts to benefits and Tax Credits are likely to undermine the beneficial effects of Universal Credit. This will lead to (in combination with demographic and earnings change) rising poverty rates over the rest of the decade. Adding in an estimate of changes in the job market increases inequality further, although it does offset some of the rise in absolute child poverty.

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So, changes to taxes, benefits, demography and earnings (the blue bars) increase absolute child poverty in 2020 by just over 6 per cent but job market changes (the red bar) offset this a tad. Turning to the relative measure, tax and benefit changes raise poverty by around 5 per cent and the projected job market adds another 1 per cent by 2020. All groups except households headed by someone aged over 65 see rising absolute and relative poverty from tax and benefit changes, with lone parents hit particularly hard. Employment change makes things worse for everyone except for absolute poverty among families with children.

We weren’t naive enough to expect the central forecast to eradicate poverty, so the plan was then to try out some different scenarios that JRF, the research team and our advisory group thought might have a positive impact. These variations were all based on changing the distribution (but not increasing the number) of jobs, and we didn’t vary the tax and benefit system. The second chart shows the impact of some of these scenarios on relative child poverty rates (the long bar shows the predicted 2020 rate of 25.7 per cent).

None of the alternative scenarios (the short bars) have any meaningful impact on that central child poverty projection. Keeping the employment structure as it is now would decrease poverty by a tiny 1.2 per cent. This is the biggest difference. A general rise in qualification levels across the workforce and reduced pay for the highest qualified, for example, actually increases child poverty more than in the central forecast (by 1.0 per cent). Most other scenarios have virtually zero effect by 2020.

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There are two core reasons for this disappointing lack of impact. The first is that low paid and poorly qualified workers, along with women and part time workers, are spread across the whole household income distribution. This means targeting these workers is not an especially effective way of targeting poverty. The second is the huge ‘drag’ on poverty rates of the large number of workless households in the UK.

What do we do about these worrying findings? It is clear that interventions such as training and skills development need to be targeted on the basis of household need, not just individual need if we are to have a serious impact on poverty. It is also clear that we need more jobs. A lot more, because the 1.5 million new jobs included in these forecasts is going to be nowhere near enough when 6 million people in the UK are currently seeking more work.

A child in the Gorton estate in Manchester, where 27% of children live under the poverty line. Photograph: Getty Images

Chris Goulden is the poverty programme manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.